Dealerships pay one of the highest average salaries of all industries, he said. Average weekly earnings for dealership employees in 2015 were $1,087.
That translates to $56,524 annually and is up from about $50,000 in 2011, Szakaly said.
"We are very much in a phase where talent is very, very valuable," he said. "We need to attract many, many more people into this industry in order to keep up with not only the work expansion that dealers have in terms of sales but also service."
Szakaly noted that owner- and employee-compensation growth also track very closely in the auto retail business -- a fairly atypical trend. In other industries, owner compensation usually far outpaces employee compensation.
"That hasn't been the case here," Szakaly said. "In fact, in many instances, employee compensation outpaces owner compensation, which is kind of counterintuitive for those businesses."
But that kind of wage growth for dealership employees is possible because productivity has been growing strongly, he said. Between 2011 and 2014, gross profit per U.S. dealership employee jumped from $7,820 to $8,410.
Turnover is the negative to this tight labor market. That is increasing, though the total dealership turnover rate in 2014, the last year for which data are available, was still lower than the U.S. private-sector's average of 44 percent, Szakaly said.
Still, the key position of sales consultant had turnover of 72 percent. Turnover is an issue for the industry that needs to be thought about more deeply, he said.
"This is unsustainable in the long run for any industry to have this 70 percent-plus turnover rate," Szakaly said.
NADA expects dealership employment to reach an all-time high in 2016. Dealership performance should be strong again, Szakaly said.
An area of strength continues to be the parts-and-service business with total revenue of $97.18 billion in 2015, up 5.9 percent from 2014. The average dealership posted service-and-parts sales of $5.9 million, up 4.9 percent. The number of total repair orders rose to 258 million in 2015 from 235 million in 2014.
The average dealership posted net profit from service and parts of $363,308 last year. That was almost nine times the average net profit from the new-vehicle department and five times that of the used-vehicle department.
Still, the customer-pay business is getting squeezed by the increase in recalls, particularly time-consuming recalls such as the Takata airbag fix, Szakaly said.
In 2015, the ratio of warranty work to customer-pay work topped 40.2 percent, its highest level in the last 10 years for which numbers are available. The 10-year average for that ratio is 32 percent, and its low came during the depths of the recession in 2009 when it was 26 percent.
Szakaly said: "We have seen some of that customer-pay [business], probably about 1.5 to 2 million actual customer repair orders, that have been pushed out by the increase in warranty work."