With unemployment high these days, it seemingly should be easy to hire and keep dealership service technicians.

Advertise for help, and get inundated with applicants, right? Wrong. As every service manager knows, only a fraction of those seeking such work are prime candidates for today's highly technology-oriented service shops.

Then again, “it's always been difficult to find a good, trained technician,” says Warren DeBardelaben, director-service support and quality for Nissan North America Inc.

Five to 10 years ago, it was especially difficult. New hires weren't keeping up with the pace of technicians who were retiring or switching to other lines of work.

Today, the supply of applicants is greater, partly due to the troubled economy. Yet, locating top technicians, who can step right in and contribute, is a formidable task.

Because of the recent flood of dealer closings, there's “no shortage of auto technicians out there, who are looking for work,” says Kent O'Hara, Nissan's director-parts, service sales marketing and service operations.

Realistically though, “the good ones get picked up pretty fast,” he says.

Few professional technicians come to work directly from high school anymore. Most have attended specialty technical training schools. Nissan relies heavily on graduates from the Universal Technical Institute. New hires also take another nine weeks of Nissan-specific training.

In the wake of layoffs from nearly every industry over the past couple of years, millions of suddenly unemployed Americans have signed up for career training. In the past decade, technical schools have done “a pretty good job on the basics,” DeBardelaben says.

But they get little or no experience of what it is like working under a dealership rate system. “The ability to work under the clock isn't fully developed,” he says.

How the shop sets up its job classifications helps determine how well a dealership can retain prime employees.

Previously, half of a dealership's service employees typically were master technicians. Today, only a few will be, DeBardelaben says.

The rest are essentially lower-level technicians who do fine on routine tasks but may never attain the skill sets required to do major work on today's complicated cars. In that regard, a master technician must have a firm understanding of electronics and computer-driven systems.

O'Hara divides the typical service department into three groups.

One may be master technicians. Another group consists of experienced “old-school” mechanics. Group three consists of “new, young, computer-literate” service technicians who are conversant with operations on technology-laden vehicles.

Treat technicians sensibly, especially the young ones, and they're more likely to stay and develop into skilled dealership veterans.

In tough economic times, why would any worker want to leave a job? Most don't. Nissan, for one, reports an 85% retention rate. In better periods, though, reasons for leaving are familiar. They include:

  • Unhappiness with progress. An aspiring, serious-minded worker might be stuck with dead-end, low-level tasks, unsure about moving up.
  • Dissatisfaction with earnings and benefits. In 2009, dealership technicians earned an average of $43,160, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Experienced master technicians do considerably better.
  • Personality clashes. These can happen in every business, but a service department can have more than usual. A service manager with an open-door policy might avert problems.
  • Insufficient on-the-job training. This is easy to correct. Most dealers make sure their techs get training updates regularly, whether online or by traditional means. In addition to auto makers' training, classes also are offered by other industry groups.

Traditionally, auto mechanics often craved a shop of their own. Not so much now. It's far more costly and complex than it used to be. Independents face a hard task nowadays, with training and technology that doesn't transfer easily from one vehicle make to another.

Nissan's launch of the battery-powered Leaf model will have an “interesting evolution on the market and in the role of technicians,” O'Hara predicts.

Likewise, with the Mitsubishi electric i-MiEV and Chevrolet Volt.

Technicians who are most conversant with repair methods for the coming generations of electric and other alternative-fuel vehicles will be in the most demand and perhaps the hardest to hang onto.