As it turns out, not even a global pandemic can kick the legs out from the under the aftermarket’s “recession-proof” status.
Declared an “essential” industry in late March, the automotive aftermarket has been open for business throughout the pandemic (albeit with reduced hours, in many cases). And while other industries have furloughed thousands of workers this year, the opposite is true for many parts sellers and suppliers, who are in hiring mode to keep up with surging demand.
In early August, AutoZone announced plans to hire more than 20,000 workers – including sales associates, delivery drivers and sales managers – “to meet the growing demands of its retail and commercial customers” throughout the country. It’s not just AutoZone. According to LinkedIn’s daily summary of job openings, Advance Auto Parts, O’Reilly Auto Parts and NAPA Auto Parts collectively were seeking more than 17,000 people for open positions at press time.
LinkedIn pegged Advance’s job openings at more than 8,000, although Natalie Rothman, EVP and chief human resources officer at Advance, points out that the number “fluctuates.” The important thing, Rothman adds, is “why we’re hiring.”
“Our business is doing well, that’s the good news,” Rothman tells AMN/Counterman. “Technology like e-commerce is driving the need for new talent. Our new customer services team requires additional support. And we’re always looking for great candidates to fill positions in our stores, our distribution centers and our corporation locations.”
As for what’s driving the demand for additional talent, there’s more to it than just the adrenaline shot from stimulus checks, courtesy of the CARES Act. In a recent appearance on CNBC’s “Power Lunch,” Advance CEO Tom Greco pointed to other tailwinds that can keep the auto parts sector humming, such as the pandemic-driven drop in new-vehicle sales. And with many people still wary of air travel and mass transit, driving has become the preferred mode of transportation in these trying times.
Denise Jones, employer branding and talent acquisition manager for NAPA, sees the automotive aftermarket in the consumer’s sweet spot right now. While necessity-driven purchases – replacement brake pads, spark plugs and the like – are fueling demand, so are enthusiast-driven sales, as collectors, restorers and other hobbyists turn to all things automotive for their comfort food. (When Jones, a car buff herself, spoke to AMN/Counterman, she and her fiancé had just purchased a ’67 Chevelle to add to their collection.)
“I think we have a tremendous opportunity in the automotive aftermarket, because people are looking for things that make them feel good, and people also are looking for essential parts that will get their cars and their trucks down the road,” Jones says.
While growth is a big part of the reason NAPA is hiring – earlier this year, the company opened a new distribution center in Lebanon, Tennessee – there are other factors at play. Even amid soaring unemployment, filling open positions can be surprisingly tough. That’s especially true if you’re looking for warehouse help – when you have the likes of Amazon and UPS collectively seeking 200,000 people for open spots, according to LinkedIn.
“We’re not just competing with businesses in the automotive space – we’re competing with everybody now,” Jones says of the quest for talent in the age of LinkedIn and Indeed.
Turnover is another factor. It’s becoming less and less common for workers to stick around with the same employer for their entire career. And in the automotive aftermarket, much of the workforce is nearing retirement age. Michael Kinney, the newly appointed automotive industry chair for Northwood University, believes that the pandemic has accelerated some of those retirements.
“COVID has really had an impact on some of those people who’ve said, ‘Hey, you know what? I’m at retirement age. I’ve done my time in the industry. I’ve had a great career. I’m going to go ahead and leave early,’” Kinney observes. “ … I think that’s where a lot of those opportunities are coming from.”
COVID-19 has disrupted how aftermarket employers hire too. In the (hopefully temporary) new normal of social distancing, virtual career fairs have replaced in-person events, and companies are using videoconferencing tools to interview candidates and even conduct virtual tools of their stores and distribution centers.
And in a pandemic-inspired twist on in-person career fairs, NAPA, Advance and others have found a safe workaround in “drive-thru career fairs.”
“Literally someone drives up in their car, and they’re wearing a mask … and we have a hiring manager outside the car standing six feet away interviewing them and talking to them a little bit about the company and what they should expect working at Advance,” Rothman explains. “It’s a way to meet candidates face to face while still feeling safe doing so.”
While parts retailers and distributors are facing stiff competition for talent, the good news is the aftermarket’s major players are well-positioned to reach potential job candidates in the current environment. All of the major parts retailers have dedicated social media accounts to support their recruiting and retention efforts, and they use those platforms to broadcast job openings, spotlight current employees and communicate their core values.
NAPA’s careers website, napaautojobs.com, uses blog posts, “Day in the Life” video interviews with employees and other content to convey the breadth of opportunities at NAPA (“no two lanes are the same!” the website declares) and that you don’t have to be a “gearhead” to find a rewarding career in the aftermarket, Jones explains.
“For a lot of people, the aftermarket is an afterthought,” Jones says. “We have to get better at showing people that the aftermarket is not just about wrenching.”
But it’s about more than appealing to job seekers who might not have an automotive background. The messaging and content aim to resonate with job seekers of all ages, nationalities and walks of life – including women, millennials, retirees, military members and “everyone in between” – which, Jones believes, is critical for sustaining the aftermarket’s talent pipeline going forward.
Northwood’s Kinney agrees.
“I think companies need to continue going down that road of appealing to younger people who didn’t grow up in a jobber store or didn’t grow up with parents who worked in the industry,” Kinney says. “ … It’s important to continuously bring new blood and new experiences into our industry.”
At Northwood – where many of the industry’s best and brightest have earned their aftermarket degree or professional designation – finding new talent for the aftermarket is central to the school’s mission. With the university’s reputation for producing job candidates who can “hit the ground running,” Northwood grads are always in demand – even during a pandemic.
“Whether it’s manufacturing, distribution, the jobber side or the retail side, our students are well-prepared for what they’re going to be facing,” says Kinney, a Northwood MBA grad who is an executive at Advance subsidiary Autopart International. “There are a lot of opportunities out there right now for our students and, quite honestly, our alumni.”