Finding the wrenches, fixing the gap

Two linked startups aim to solve the skilled labor shortage by connecting automotive and diesel technicians to shops.
graphic of a car with a wrench and a phone
Illustration by Tim Burton/Getty Images

Jay Goninen grew up answering phones and scheduling appointments in his dad’s Mineral Point auto repair shop, listening to him complain about how hard it was to recruit and retain skilled mechanics — or, as his dad put it, to “find a wrench.” Even as a kid, Goninen could see why. The work was difficult, the cars became more complex every year, the older generation of mechanics was retiring and young people were rarely steered toward trade careers. Goninen’s high school didn’t have an automotive shop class — still doesn’t, he says — but an apprenticeship program took him to Southwest Wisconsin Technical College, then he earned his automotive technician diploma from Universal Technical Institute.

“Then I came back to work for my dad and was pretty bad at it,” Goninen says. “I got quickly humbled by the automotive industry.”

Goninen went into diesel sales instead, covering his admitted insecurity about not attending a four-year college by working twice as hard. He was eventually recruited to run the parts and service departments for a seven-store heavy equipment dealership, managing more than 120 employees throughout southern Wisconsin. Year after year, shop after shop, he heard his dad’s sentiment repeated: There just weren’t enough skilled mechanics to fill the jobs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2026 the automotive repair industry will need 46,000 more service technicians to meet demand — and there are now 75,000 job openings in any given year.

“This shortage wasn’t getting any better,” Goninen says. “Everybody I talked to in the industry was having this problem, and there really wasn’t anybody addressing it.”

In 2015, his wife’s career brought them to Mount Horeb, and Goninen continued his long days on the road. But when their first child was born prematurely in 2017, Goninen found himself reevaluating his career while at the hospital. He’d long dreamed of putting his entrepreneurial instincts to the test and launching a company that might help close the gap. “I wrote the business plan while I was in the NICU,” Goninen says. His son came home healthy — and Find a Wrench was born.

Find a Wrench and its follow-up sister site, WrenchWay (launched in 2020 after Goninen joined forces with business partner Mark Wilson), are web platforms that serve as comprehensive resources for recruiting services, job postings, insider videos and more. Job-seeking candidates are vetted and coached, then have access to numerous resources, including curated profiles from subscriber shops that cover everything from compensation and benefits to shop culture — right down to the radio station they listen to at work.

The companies immediately filled a niche and took hold, and as Goninen and Wilson helped other businesses grow in a smart way, they applied those skills at home, too. “I can’t talk highly enough of our team,” Goninen says of the staff that has now grown to 34 people (most based in Mount Horeb) serving more than 250 active customers across the country.

This spring, WrenchWay added School Connect, a free program that applies these platforms to connect school shop classes with technicians and businesses for speaking engagements, shop tours, and even access to equipment. For example, WrenchWay customer Truck Country donated a Detroit Diesel engine, and Smart Motors donated two cars to area high schools. More than 100 schools are already registered on School Connect. Goninen feels grateful that the team is not only helping fill the labor gap but also playing a role in revitalizing school shop programs and maybe even addressing the stigma he felt when he was younger.

“There were so many smart and accomplished people that went to tech school, or didn’t even go to a postsecondary school,” Goninen says. “When I went into it and realized I wasn’t good at it, I realized how hard it is. I’ve got a whole different respect level for people in the trades. It’s really near and dear to my heart.”

Maggie Ginsberg is an associate editor of Madison Magazine.

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