By Mark Carlisle
If there were more skilled automotive technicians in the West Valley, Sanderson Ford would hire them. But there aren’t.
“That’s an area where all car dealers are looking for help in the whole industry. We need more automotive technicians,” said Mark Witthar, general manager of Sanderson Ford at 51st and Maryland avenues in Glendale.
It’s not an easy gig, and not enough people are trained for it. Because of the complexity, engines and transmissions are usually worked on by technicians who specialize in that area alone.
It’s also a quickly evolving industry that’s requiring more and more technological knowledge.
“These cars and trucks that we’re selling and servicing are very complex,” Mr. Witthar said. “It’s not like it was 20 years ago. I mean, there’s more computing power in the least sophisticated car we sell than the rocket that sent man to the moon. These are not just something where you can make a couple of adjustments with a screwdriver.”
There’s more computing power in the least sophisticated car we sell than the rocket that sent man to the moon.
Mark Witthar, Sanderson Ford Regional Manager
Sanderson Ford employs about 110 automotive technicians. It connects with several workforce development programs in the West Valley for new hires, but it’s still not enough.
If he could, Mr. Witthar would hire enough technicians to add another shift, so technicians could work on cars after the dealership closes so customers could pick up their cars the next morning. But he can’t. There aren’t enough skilled workers out there.
Mr. Witthar is not alone. According to a recent survey, 43 percent of Valley businesses with more than 100 employees struggle to find enough skilled workers. The West Valley needs more workers, and Glendale wants to be the place to provide them.
“Workforce is the No. 1 issue for existing businesses as well as inbound prospects,” said Glendale’s economic development director Brian Friedman. “If there are top 10 issues, the first three are ‘workforce, workforce, workforce.’”
If there are top 10 issues, the first three are ‘workforce, workforce, workforce.’
Brian Friedman, Glendale Economic Development Director
The survey, conducted by Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, which polled 330 Valley businesses, found that workforce was among the top three challenges for small, mid-sized and large businesses alike. It also showed that 63 percent of businesses would support increased taxes to fund K-12 education in order to fuel the workforce.
“That’s pretty consistent with what we’re hearing out there… I think kind of across the board there is a struggle to find qualified people,” said Greg Tilque, senior economic development manager for the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce.
Glendale is looking to be a leader in workforce development. This will help draw new businesses in, Mr. Friedman said.
“(Companies want) to make sure that if they make any capital investment in a community, that they know that the skilled labor force for their industry are present,” he said.
This is where the West Valley is already beginning to stand out. Mr. Friedman that while trying to attract businesses, his office can show companies demographic data that shows most of the skilled workers in the Valley live in the West Valley.
“It certainly is making a more compelling case for those seeking to make investment in Glendale about the why they should locate here in Glendale and in the West Valley,” Mr. Friedman said.
Mr. Friedman said companies with operations in both the West and East Valley have told him their West Valley operations are more productive and have happier employees because “they can work, live and play right in the same area,” he said.
Still, the workforce isn’t meeting the business community’s needs. According to the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce survey, the local workforce poses a challenge to 23 percent of businesses with 10 or fewer employees, 36 percent of businesses with 10-100 employees and 43 percent of businesses with more than 100 employees.
Much of the need for workforce comes in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — areas. The Greater Phoenix Chamber has organized four workforce collaboratives to study the needs for industry-specific training in the Valley and to take steps to help the workforce meet those needs.
“Those collaboratives are trying to close that skills gap and find ways to make sure that there’s some employees out there that are qualified,” Mr. Tilque said.
The four workforce collaboratives are in the areas of construction, cyber security, financial services and health care.
The Chamber will soon publish its second survey, which will focus entirely on the workforce needs of Valley businesses.
Several organizations in Glendale are also seeking to build the workforce in STEM industries.
The Academy of Math & Science, a charter school, recently broke ground on its fifth location, which will be at 45th and Glendale avenues in Glendale.
“We’re really pleased that institutions like them are selecting communities like Glendale to continue to offer really high-caliber, STEM-level education because we think that is where the future lies, and we need to have a fully-trained workforce in our youth that is capable of entering the job market with the skills that are being sought,” Mr. Friedman said.
Glendale also has several institutions seeking to provide technically skilled workers needed by companies like Sanderson Ford.
Across the street from the future site of Academy of Math & Science – Glendale is the Arizona Automotive Institute. In addition to an automotive service technology program, which is one of the sources Sanderson Ford finds technicians, AAI features programs in diesel mechanical heavy truck repair, combination welding and HVAC and basic refrigeration.
Another source of technicians Mr. Witthar finds in Glendale is through Glendale Community College’s Ford ASSET apprenticeship program, which stands for Automotive Student Service Educational Training. Students spend eight months studying at GCC and a year of paid apprenticeship at Sanderson Ford or Sanderson Lincoln in Phoenix. After the program is completed, the student becomes a full-time technician at the dealership.
GCC has similar programs with Chrysler and General Motors.
Sanderson Ford is also fed technicians by a Ford program at University Technical Institute in Avondale.
The Western Maricopa Education Center, or West-MEC, based in Glendale, has several career training programs for adults. These include programs for automobile repair and technology, aviation repair and avionics, coding, heating and air conditioning, IT security, medical billing and coding, precision manufacturing, welding technology and becoming a pharmacy technician.
Glendale’s libraries play a role in workforce development as well. The Glendale Main Library’s recently expanded IDEA Center, which stands for Innovation Development and Entrepreneurial Assistance, provides free classes, workshops and business enterprise resources aimed at helping job seekers, businesses and nonprofit entrepreneurs succeed in the marketplace.
Mr. Friedman’s economic development office, as well as other regional partners provide mentoring, networking and training resources at the center.
West-MEC served high school students as well as adult students. Mr. Witthar said Sanderson Ford recently had about 80 West-MEC students tour their facilities.
“What we wanted to do is have them see what a dealership looks like, what the opportunities are, talk to my service management team so that they could see what’s available and hear that there’s a career in this field — a very rewarding and well-paying career,” Mr. Witthar said.
Traditional high schools can also play a role in filling the automotive technician workforce, Mr. Witthar said. Much of that effort, he said, should be in educating high schoolers making decisions on a future career path that a career as a technician is a viable option and removing the negative stigma.
“There’s a certain stigma attached to it, which I don’t think is fair because these are good paying jobs and they’re highly skilled jobs that not everyone can do,” Mr. Witthar said.
As the Greater Phoenix Chamber’s survey showed business support for increased funding of traditional K-12 education, so did the last election show voter support for education funding. Eighteen of 22 ballot measures asking for taxpayer money for local school districts in Arizona passed, including all three in Glendale. Voters will have to wait at until the next election at least to get a chance to vote on a much larger proposed education funding ballot initiative. The Arizona Supreme Court disallowed an Invest in Ed ballot initiative, which would have taxed the state’s top earners to fund education, from appearing on the ballot. The Court said the initiative’s petition signers were not fully informed of what the new law would do.
Alongside dozens of high schools, elementary schools and middle schools, both public and private, Glendale has several higher education institutions fueling the workforce as well.
In addition to its car repair programs, GCC offers a wide-range of classes which train workers for a variety of fields. Northern Arizona University also has a location on GCC’s campus that offers four degree programs.
Midwestern University provides hundreds of workers each year to the Valley’s health care industry. Arizona College’s Glendale campus also helps provide health care workers. Glendale’s Carrington College campus provides health care programs as well as a criminal justice program.
DeVry University, with an office in Glendale’s Westgate Entertainment District, offers a variety of degree programs for adults.
The Glendale campus of the Arizona School of Real Estate and Business helps provide workers to those industries.
Glendale lost the Thunderbird School of Global Management in 2018 but will gain Arizona Christian University in 2019. ACU will move into the former Thunderbird campus in the fall.