An unhappy opportunity

The headlines last month were grim, but not unexpected: General Motors announced it would cut 1,100 dealerships across the country – the first step in an overall effort to produce a 40 percent cut in the auto giant’s retail sales network. That came on top of Chrysler’s announcement that it would shutter 789 dealerships nationwide. And all of it was in response to the government’s demand that both auto manufacturers massively reorganize in return for accepting bailout funds earlier in the year.

The GM dealership closings were hardly a surprise given the car maker’s public troubles and the fact that earlier in May it disclosed it was killing off Pontiac – a sentimental blow for me, since I still have my first car, an electric blue 1985 Firebird, sitting patiently in my garage awaiting restoration. Those were clear signs that the end was near for many automobile retailers that, not surprisingly, already were hurting. Through April, payroll employment at automobile dealers was down 3.8 percent from the end of 2008 and 13.3 percent from April 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Some automobile dealerships cut by GM and Chrysler will remain in business, focusing on other makes they carry or switching to new ones. But many dealerships will fold forever.

There’s at least one upside to this sad situation, however. For truck fleets and service providers that have struggled and worried for so long about a shortage of skilled technicians, the turmoil among automobile dealers presents a rare opportunity. A glut of highly trained automotive mechanics soon will be entering the job market against their will.

And many will be looking for work in many of the small towns and communities across the country where fleet service facilities present the best opportunities.

It’s unclear how many automobile technicians ultimately will get pink slips and when. First of all, Chrysler and GM aren’t just pulling the plugs on these dealerships overnight. In GM’s case, the timing could be contingent on whether it ultimately seeks bankruptcy protection and slips out of its dealer contracts. Owners of multiple dealerships representing multiple makes undoubtedly will try to shift some of their best workers to other locations. And regardless of future sales, there still will be a need to service the millions of GM and Chrysler cars already on the road.

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So there’s no need to rush out and stock up on technicians – a good thing since chances are you aren’t in the position to hire more people right now. But it does mean that thousands of technicians soon could be on the market – or at least pondering their long-term employment options.

Granted, an automotive technician is not automatically qualified to work on heavy-duty diesel engines. But the talent and general knowledge base is certainly there, which is why – in the wake of these dealerships closing – now is a good time for truck fleets to start reaching out to automotive technicians whose jobs are on the line and begin a dialogue with them.

It’s a good idea to find the “Top Guns” in these dealership service bays and see if they have any interest in making a move into a different industry. Start talking to them about the kind of training they’ll need, and find out when their employers will be closing their doors. At the same time, it’s a good idea to be talking to nearby technical schools to see how they can help with retraining automotive technicians and getting them up to speed on the skills they’ll need to work on big trucks.

There might be tumbleweeds blowing through the trucking industry right now, but when this economy finally turns, all the fleets left standing are going to be busier than ever. By planning, reaching out and building relationships now, a fleet could go a long way toward keeping its rigs on the road once the freight starts moving again.