Automobile dealer Joel Higley advertised for a service technician 10 years ago.
He didn't get one application, says Higley, owner of Higley Ford Sales in Windom, Minnesota.
The stinging memory of that experience prompted Higley to get involved in a nearby vocational technology school to recruit a homegrown workforce.
Windom is about 150 miles southwest of Minneapolis and has a population of about 4,500 people—not exactly a relocation destination for experienced service technicians, Higley says.
Higley now has five service technicians on staff, which is just about right for his dealership size. He sells about 378 new and used vehicles a year, mostly pickups, he says. Higley estimates his service business accounts for one-third of his annual revenue.
But three of Higley's senior technicians are in their 50s, and two of them are eyeing retirement, Higley says. Replacing them would be tough in any market, but Higley's dealership is in a rural farming area with only one grocery store, one Dollar General, a packing plant and a factory.
"You have to take hometown guys and train them for this work," Higley says. "That's what grounds them here, and they'll hang around here."
So in 2004 Higley joined the advisory board for auto mechanics at a nearby vocational school, Minnesota West Community and Technical College. That's where he found Ben Woizeschke in 2010.
Higley wanted Woizeschke to intern at his dealership. He wanted him so much that he closed his unprofitable body shop to add three service stalls to make room for Woizeschke.
Higley hired Woizeschke full-time in the spring 2011 and will continue to pay for Woizeschke's ongoing training, along with that of another service technician Higley hired 14 years ago.
"My goal is to keep it going," Higley says. "You have to keep a constant flow and timeline. You anticipate the retirement of a guy and you have to have another guy there to replace him."
And where will Higley find those replacements? "I'm keeping an eye on the vo-tech schools, other programs and ... well, maybe a schoolteacher will move to town whose husband is a tech," Higley laughs. "I don't know if I could get that lucky."