Auto mechanics in short supply due to Japan’s low birthrate, tough work environment

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Students at Tokyo Automobile University School, a vocational school for auto mechanics, practice inspecting cars in Katsushika Ward, Tokyo, in September last year.

There is an increasingly serious shortage of auto mechanics capable of performing safety inspections in Japan, as a result of the chronically low birthrate and young people’s aversion to the harsh work environment.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry announced Tuesday that the ratio of job offers to job-seekers for mechanics was 4.58 to 1 in 2021, far higher than the average of 1.13 to 1 for all occupations. The shortage of mechanics has led to a series of falsified vehicle inspections, prompting the government to take measures to secure human resources in this field.

Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Tetsuo Saito expressed a strong sense of urgency at a press conference after the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, saying, “Securing human resources and improving productivity in the auto maintenance industry are urgent issues.”

Saito and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida made an inspection tour of automobile maintenance facilities in Tokyo and exchanged opinions with mechanics on Jan. 13.

The government regards the shortage of mechanics as a problem because it has been a major factor behind the flood of falsified safety inspections.

In March last year, a Toyota Motor Corp.-affiliated dealership in Aichi Prefecture was found to have not conducted required inspections. An internal investigation by the company discovered that a total of 6,659 vehicles were affected by the falsified inspections at 16 dealerships run by 15 sales arms.

Toyota said the problems was due partly to excessive workloads at the dealerships. “They didn’t have enough manpower, so [the mechanics] had to do work other than vehicle inspections,” an official said.

Falsified inspections were also discovered at local mechanic businesses in Chiba Prefecture in June and in Yamanashi Prefecture in December.

According to the Japan Automobile Service Promotion Association, 36,630 people applied to take the exam for automobile mechanics in fiscal 2020, or half the about 72,600 in fiscal 2004.

In addition to the low birthrate, the number of young people who are interested in automobiles is widely thought to be decreasing. The harsh, oil-soaked working environment is being shunned, with young people turning to IT and other industries.

The average annual wage of auto mechanics in fiscal 2021 was ¥3.987 million, below that in other industries, according to the association.

The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, together with 16 related industry organizations, has been working to promote the profession by visiting high schools nationwide.

The government also plans to use the latest technology to alleviate the burden of vehicle inspections. The discussion is proceeding in the direction of reducing the number of inspection items without degrading safety, and for that purpose, a sensor will be built into a car to automatically detect failures and abnormalities. In January 2023, vehicle inspection certificates will be digitized to make the process more efficient.