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Why There Is a Shortage of Skilled Automotive Technicians - Part 1

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A recent article shared with me by a co-worker reminded me of a situation looming over the auto repair industry that could become a real problem over the next few years. Skilled automotive technicians are becoming harder and harder to find.

I am not talking about technicians who change your oil and perform other minor repairs. I am talking about the highly skilled technicians who diagnose and repair the most difficult problems. These technicians understand the basic mechanical theory behind each automotive system, the computer controls that now manage each of these systems, and the electronic network that links them all together.

Over the past few years, many of these highly skilled technicians have left the industry; those who remain will be retiring sooner than later. If I may be so bold (Editor’s note: he should be so bold; he’s awesome.), I would like to include myself as a highly skilled technician who has left the industry, as have most of the best technicians I have worked with over the years. It can take ten years or more for a technician fresh out of trade school to begin to really understand the complexities of our modern automobiles—most never do. Highly skilled technicians are just not being replaced as quickly as they are leaving.

One way to help stem the tide is to keep the current group in the 45–60 age range working on cars until they retire, instead of having them get fed up and leave the industry as I and many others have done. So what is driving these highly skilled technicians out of the repair business and into other fields? It’s simple—compensation and working conditions.

I realize that times are tough and everyone has been asked to do more for less pay, but this started in the automotive repair industry many years before our recent recession worsened the problem.

In most cases, technicians are paid using what is called a “flat rate” system. This system is based on the suggested labor times for each specific job. These “flat rate” times are developed by the manufacturers and then adjusted (slightly higher) for the independent repair shops. This means the technician is paid based on the hours billed to the customer for the jobs he worked on.

The technician is paid for each “flat rate” hour produced regardless of how long it takes to do the job. If the technician beats the time, she comes out ahead. If he takes longer, there is no compensation for the extra time.

Some shops take this to the extreme. When there is no work in the shop, there is no pay. Up until about the year 2000, when shops were busy, most technicians could break even or come out ahead under this system. As a way to cut costs, many manufacturers and shop owners began to reduce the “flat rate” time on many repairs. As a result, it has become much more difficult to come out ahead when performing difficult diagnostics and repairs that most skilled technicians commonly do. This situation has negatively impacted the compensation and working conditions for just about every auto repair technician.

According to information available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, since 2003, the average salary for auto repair technicians has not kept pace with the Consumer Price Index or the average salary many other skilled trades:

Percentage Increase 2003–2011

Consumer price index 23.14%

Average Salary for:
Auto Repair Technician: 15.73%
Truck and Bus Technician: 18.80% 
Aircraft Technician: 21.73% 
Elevator Repair Technician: 31.95%

How can this industry possibly attract new techs and retain its current ones if the average auto repair technician’s salary has lost 7.5% to inflation over the last eight years? It cannot.

Next time, we will look at why some repair shops have been able to retain their senior technicians and to bring on board younger techs, right out of trade school, who are ready to learn from these experienced technicians. We call them Top Shops.

Read part 2 of the blog.

Add a Comment (12) Comments
  • Bcowake, January 25, 2013, 13:48

    Agree completely! My cars have been serviced at an independent dealer for 30 years (specializing in imports). Recently have had a problem which the extended warranty would not cover unless it went to the dealership. After 3 weeks the best they can tell me is i've been running the wrong octane fuel. Just because they put a lot of money into freshly baked cookies, fresh fruit & a nice selection of beverages does not make their service techs any more knowledgeable.....just makes the customer more complacent. I'll take the shop where the owner is willing to show me the failed part and explain what happened. Car manufacturers and dealers would rather not see these independents in business because it makes them look bad.

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  • big brad, March 17, 2013, 00:31

    being a mechanic is not an easy job anymore . what a lot of people don't realize is the technology in most cars is so complexed seems like there is a computer or a module for every component in the vehicle. companies only release some of the data that is needed to diagnose but it is very faint . ive been swinging wrenches and getting covered in grease for 25 years .I used to love it .its hard to find a boss who will send a 45 year old guy to school so I just basically teach myself and forget about finding someonewho will pay you what your worth . I hope the industry ddont go too much further cause its not gonna get better.

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  • Visitor, April 12, 2013, 18:52

    i was an auto tech for 20 years, starting out at 16 years old changing oil worked my way up to master tech at a dealer. i have since left wrenching because i was watching my yearly salary drop considerably since 2005. when i left in 2008 to pursue another avenue in the auto industry, i was making about the same as when i was 20. but i had to buy tools ,get certified ,keep up with the technology...for what? as a technician there is really no incentives anymore, no health benefits, no retirement, and also no respect from the owners/ managers of these repair facilities.

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  • Visitor, October 18, 2013, 12:56

    well hello there brother. Yes, I have been hanging out here on the edge of nowhere, dinking around on the computer, turning into a politics junkie, not fixing cars........ health problems, the usual. Nice to know my skills would still be highly salable in a lively market, just in case. Try this one though, besides the technical skills and the basic academic skills, (so it is easy to do the "never stop learning thing" that goes with our business) what about the customer and vender skills? When I left the Portland Oregon area for the hells canyon scenic recreation area where I am now I had to rent out a house. I rented it to an auto tech and his family, (funny, he always comes up with the money, huh...) and I told him that technical skills are only half of the complete package....what about the people skills? harryc

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  • Visitor, November 06, 2013, 07:47

    Industry is crashing and burning.

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  • Visitor, December 16, 2013, 04:23

    I feel that even if you have the passion and desire to diagnose, fix, repair, and maintain vehicles of today and yesterday you should not get into this field of business. It is very difficult and hard on the body to do this job, and you have to invest a lot of money in tools and equipment. Most of all you cannot make a decent living doing this job, you would be better off being a computer geek, sitting behind a computer keyboard.

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  • stevart, January 29, 2014, 00:58

    I am a Mechanic for last 6 years and I don't think like there is any shortage for skilled technicians. Skill that depends on one person's experience. And auto care service is not an easy job you need to be updated about each vehicles engine,battery, radiators,brakes etc. I had a team of some skilled mechanics in Apex specialized automotive and we people regularly share our views and thought about each vehicles maintanance and other factors. That help us to get more information about the current service level and all.

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  • sween dog, March 07, 2014, 13:44

    I am a tech for General motors dealer for 12 year. This industry gets harder by the day. if their isn't a shortage of techs in your area there will be soon. This industry doesn't have the time to train techs in busy shops. they will hire a kid out of school making $12 an hour, within days the will be totally overwhelmed. I bought socket set of nine 2 weeks ago, its price on sale $425. That's just the basics. This industry has asked to much of the auto tech and they have had enough. There might be a few shops out there that train and pay well, but they are going fast. The almighty dollar has taken over

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  • Visitor, May 23, 2014, 18:10

    I also left the industry a few years ago. I was with Toyota for four years but left for the same reasons as everyone else here. Primarily due to the amount of training needed to keep up with advancing technology. The average person just doesn't realize what must be known in order to diagnose electrical problems these days. You practically need a computer science and electrical engineering degree. Many cars especially luxury models can have 30 or more computers on board each governing different systems. The Prius alone has 39 computers! Good luck checking voltage values and resistances between hundreds of wires from point a to point b. They just don't pay enough for it.

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  • Visitor, January 26, 2015, 18:45

    I agree. I worked on cars for years and can completely understand what you mean. Warranty work is beyond poorly compensated and the dealerships do not help out. Many dealerships do not adequately train their techs by sending them to manufacturer's schooling (which the manufacturer does not charge for). I left, even though working on cars is really my passion.

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  • Visitor, January 26, 2015, 20:22

    Car dealerships carry the brunt of the blame for this. Starting in the eighties there has been a steady downward depression of tech wages. Techs years and years ago received 50% of the labor charge i.e. if the customer paid $300 for a water pump and it was $200 for the labor and $100 for the parts the tech would get 100, now only the best get over $25 most below $20, almost 40 years later. How much inflation has there been in that time? A national union would solve it but it'll never happen until then enjoy the last of the baby boomers who can fix cars.

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  • Visitor, January 26, 2015, 21:55

    I totally disagree, they are out there four types of Auto mechanics. 1- The dealership mechanic. Paid on flat rate were oldies got the best labor jobs and the Rockies only the warranty cheap jobs 2- The Traditional conventional auto repair shop mechanic, were the owner makes all the profit from parts and labor paying a salary to a mechanic on exchange for a license and insured place to work. 3- The auto part and mobile mechanic. The ones doesn’t have to pay taxes or licenses and there is no need for an accurate diagnostic because they will send you to the nearest auto repair shop to obtain one for free and then profit like a parasite from others hard work 4- The self-employed or 50/50 like me were after years of schools thousand on tools and years of experiences open our own shop or partner with someone to take care of the licensing paying of the bills, marketing and the other of doing the job, pay taxes and charge for then too. This is the best of all four because you not just have the opportunity to have hands on different cars every day but you are learning every day as you should. This option also generate the most amount on cash for every one involve and the most repeated client list There is no such a thing of shortest on good mechanics, like every other trade people come and go, some are no up for the challenges or never was something for them like the ones coming fascinated by the amount of money you can make. Good mechanics are out there just drive you neighborhood and you will find us. Ask for our credentials, we will be cheaper than a dealership, secure than a improviser and coffee will be on the house

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