What is the future of the motor technician?
A skill that required hands-on expertise is now seeing technology throwing a proverbial spanner into the works
The first petrol-powered car, produced by Karl Benz more than 130 years ago, shares almost nothing in common with the cars of today, and the rate of evolution is increasing rapidly.
With the increase of highly sophisticated and often electrified vehicles being sold across the full spectrum of motor vehicle categories, how will software updates and tech support replace the hands-on car maintenance and sometimes oily repair work of the traditional automotive technician?
The expression “getting your hands dirty” as a technician in the near future might end up being just that — an expression. A skill that has required a unique set of hands-on expertise and vehicle knowledge for decades is now seeing technology throwing a proverbial spanner into its future. Tomorrow’s technicians will require different skills and will more than likely be IT or software experts, data analysts or coders.
More and more industry thought leaders believe driverless vehicles are in our future with companies such as Google and Tesla working to make it happen. Internal combustion engines will inevitably make way for alternative power sources. So what will become of a profession that, just a generation ago, prided itself on hands-on experience and diagnosis by ear?
Today’s vehicles aren’t stand-alone entities but are part of a network of navigation and shared information. We are moving from an industry that for more than 100 years has relied on vehicles that operate mechanically and are petroleum-fuelled, to those that will soon be interconnected, electronically controlled and fuelled by a variety of energy sources.
Both the job requirements and day-to-day activities of motor technicians are evolving alongside the vehicles of today. Vocational training — on the job, hands-on learning — used to be a hallmark. But cars, and the systems that make them run, have become more complex, with technicians now needing to attend frequent software training to remain up to date. As a result, dealers are needing to invest large sums on new forms of training.
The image of a technician popping open the bonnet and removing engine components to find out what’s going on inside will soon fade. In today’s hi-tech world, technicians work with diagnostic machines and refer to computers or tablets for information. Understanding battery composition and circuitry will overtake valve clearances and ignition timing.
Having said this, artisans transitioning into the role of a technician in today’s tech-rich automotive environment are likely to be met with incredible job opportunities. The shortage in digital skills will put those willing to learn, or already equipped with technologically advanced skills, in high demand.
It is estimated that we’ll need hundreds of technicians for our dealerships over the next 10 years, but the predicted technician shortfall is immense due to a lack of quality higher education, specifically in critical subjects for this field such as maths and science. Dealers and OEMs alike have recognised the skills gap and are actively working on approaches to inspire, develop and recruit the next generation of coders, software engineers and technicians.
The World Economic Forum estimates that 65% of students entering primary school today will end up working in a job that doesn’t exist yet. Put another way, today’s youth will end up in professions that are inconceivable at the moment — and this certainly applies to the automotive space.
While training needs to radically shift to accommodate alternative-fuel powered vehicles, in SA fuel-powered cars aren’t going anywhere soon, and technician training will still need to focus on traditional engines and vehicles systems. The need for traditional technicians will indeed continue for the foreseeable future. However, it’s imperative that SA doesn’t lag behind in skills development.
• Mark Dommisse is chair of the National Automobile Dealers’ Association (Nada).