Joshua Mills has been the Mercedes-Benz service director for Sears Imported Autos of Minnetonka for a couple of years, having previously worked as a master technician, service director for commercial vehicles and a service adviser. Mills and a lot of other managers in the automotive industry have a chronic problem of hiring and retaining skilled service technicians. Mills now has an approach, combining training and aggressive recruitment, that seems to be working.


Q: How big is the challenge of hiring auto technicians?

A: It’s an incredible challenge. I wasn’t in this position 10 or 15 years ago, but I was a tech, and you could apply for a job at a Mercedes-Benz dealership, BMW dealership, Audi, and it was tough to get in. Now I put out a technician want ad, and I have one that’s constantly running, I maybe get one applicant every three weeks. And I publish zero qualifications for the job whatsoever.


Q: What is the origin of the strategy you have adopted?

A: Mercedes-Benz has a program called M-B Drive. Basically, they work with trade schools, mainly Universal Technical Institute. They take top-tier students who want to work for Mercedes-Benz, and they have to pass a test and interview and get accepted into M-B Drive. So for the dealers, you send an e-mail and you click on your region and you see who is available from M-B Drive. You want to hire one of these guys from M-B Drive, it’s $10,000, a fee paid to Mercedes for the training program.

You can also hire them before M-B Drive and sponsor them to go through M-B Drive for a $5,500 fee. So I’ve been working with UTI, looking at top-tier candidates, talking to them and then sponsoring them. And I put them on a two-year contract. So we are proactively going after these kids, not waiting for Mercedes to send a list of who’s graduating.

Part two is the training program here. I used to work for M-B in Chicago, and they had a shop foreman that would bring all the new technicians and teach them on a daily basis. It was really good curriculum. When I came here there was really none of that. They would take a technician and partner them with a journeyman technician until that journeyman technician felt [trainees] were ready. There’s no consistency between the training. I want to train them the way we want to train them, so that we can retain them, so we can fix all these cars the same and have less customer returns and higher customer retention.


Q: Did Mercedes provide any help in how to set up training?

A: Mercedes-Benz has been pushing recently ... their CDT technician, which stands for centralized diagnostic technician. It’s not a new idea. Mercedes has been pushing recently because they ... hear all the complaints from the dealerships that we cannot hire enough technicians to service the cars. And Mercedes keeps selling more and more cars. So Mercedes said they would push the CDT idea, so when a journeyman technician gets stuck on a hard-to-diagnose car for an hour and is up against the wall, we push the problem over to the CDT. So I took that idea and I brought it in for the training aspect. I pitched this idea to one of the experienced techs, Adam Cunningham, and he took off and ran with it. So we made this part of our apprenticeship/training program.

The first part for new techs is going to the express service team, the entry-level work, the oil changes, the tires, the brakes, that kind of stuff. Then I move them over to the CDT. Adam runs his own team with these newcomers, entry-level technicians, and he trains them. At the same time this is taking work off of the other journeyman technicians. My main shop is more productive because if they get stuck, the [cars] get moved to a CDT. Those cars get fixed properly, because we have one of our best guys on it. I also train these new technicians at the exact same time.


Q: What’s next in the process?

A: Once these [new] technicians are six to 12 months with my CDT, these trainees will move back to express and become an express team leader for about three months. Now they will train the new incoming express technicians. When they’re done with three months, give or take, then they’ll move out to the shop and become a full-fledged journeyman technician. It’s all kind of coming together, this circle. And then the advantage we have is that they all train through one guy, and one guy only, who we trust to train them and will consistently train them.


Q: Are you finding the candidates you want?

A: I know what I’m getting. They might be training in California with UTI or Florida or Texas. They will fly out here and interview with me, I’ll see them face-to-face before I throw $5,500 out there. That’s one thing I was worried about for this deal, [to] spend that money, but you do get that technician on a contract. What else are you going to do? You can’t find technicians; there are no other options out there.

But there’s so much money to be made in this industry, and I don’t think people realize it. All the M-B Drive guys are 19, 20 years old, straight out of school. These guys can go to school for nine to 12 months, go to a training program for four months, come here and next thing they know they’re making $75,000 or $80,000 per year. And the sky is the limit. The better these guys are, the more money they make.