The auto industry may be moving on to hybrids and all-electric vehicles, but the perception of car-repair careers by American young people is two big steps behind that reality. Many of vocation-selecting age still don’t even give modern autos credit for being the rolling computers they are, much less understand that the EV revolution is moving automotive transit into another new era of technological wonder—and the basis for great jobs fixing cars.
Mercedes-Benz and its U.S. dealers are trying to change this frustrating status quo with a new, multifaceted effort to address the industry-wide shortage of technical talent that works at the high-school, vocational-college and young-adult levels and incorporates aggressive awareness-raising and partnership efforts that will recruit a new generation of technicians to work in the back shops of auto retailers.
How Mercedes-Benz is approaching its most pressing talent-management need may provide ideas for other business leaders who’ve got similar gnawing problems.
The programs are designed to provide a wide range of classroom and hands-on training to people at every career entry point and to demonstrate the high-tech wizardry involved in keeping Mercedes-Benz vehicles on the road. Now there’s even a company-sponsored “Mercedes-Benz” major at some community colleges.
“What we started to realize is that our dealers haven’t been able to keep up with their technician [requirements] due to retirements and turnover,” Lisa Rosenfeld, general manager of the German automaker’s Mercedes-Benz Academy in the U.S., told Chief Executive. “Much of it, we realized, was because young people just aren’t getting into the field of automotive technology anymore. It’s not seen as attractive. There’s the perception of the grease-monkey kind of role, and nothing could be further from the truth.”
So far, Mercedes-Benz has 60 U.S. dealers connecting with 64 high schools and 70 dealers partnering with 57 colleges. Nearly 240 students have become interns or apprentices under the new effort over the past two years. Mercedes-Benz dealers employ about 6,000 technicians nationwide.
Here are some ideas for approaching technical-labor shortages from how the Atlanta-based Mercedes-Benz team in the United States approached its challenge:
• Recognize when you’re slipping. It’s not like its technician shortage sneaked up on Mercedes-Benz and its dealers. The company has conducted an intensive, 17-week training program for technicians for several years, which has recruited many high-school students, ex-military maintenance technicians and others. It enjoys a 98% hire rate with dealers.
But Mercedes-Benz leadership saw that this program wasn’t enough, and then Covid interrupted it. Coming out of the pandemic, Rosenfeld, who joined the company in 2019, and others knew they needed to step things up with “more opportunities to get into schools and communities and with parents,” she says.
• Embrace partnership. Mercedes-Benz has created a new program aimed at high-school students and one aimed at two-year colleges and vocational schools. “We have three-way connections, involving our dealers,” Rosenfeld explains. “Everyone has a role to play. Schools are responsible for taking our curriculum and promoting it. We will give faculty the core e-learning courses. And we ask our dealers to participate locally with career days, going to schools and making presentations to classes, donating some swag, maybe bringing students on a dealership tour each semester.”
• Entice community colleges. America’s two-year schools are leading something of a renaissance in vocational learning as the cost—and effectiveness—of four-year college degrees come increasingly into question. Mercedes-Benz is leveraging that revolution.
“When a school commits to creating a ‘Mercedes-Benz major,’” Rosenfeld says, “we donate a vehicle so they have the ability to give those students not only e-learning but also hands-on experience. And we will train faculty. We require dealers to offer students at least one internship or apprenticeship each semester. That gives them a real filter to a pipeline of talent.”
• Highlight the latest tech. Mercedes-Benz’s new EQS all-electric vehicle platform is still only just working its way into the luxury automaker’s U.S. model lineup. But the automaker wants to use the future of its technology platform as a way to lure more technicians today.
“We’re not giving colleges [EVs] yet, but we make sure we’re covering the technology in our e-learning,” and dealers can give would-be technicians test drives. “They can see the cars and technology in them are exciting. When they get into the car it’s very different from theory or being in the neighbor’s garage.”