Why There Is a Shortage of Skilled Automotive Technicians

September 7, 2012

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.

While most shops have always had a certain amount of difficulty finding and keeping good quality technicians, the problem seems to be getting worse. It looks like this trend will continue for the foreseeable future. Good quality shops that are committed to providing their technicians with what is needed to repair today’s complex cars and light trucks (tools, training, repair information) along with fair compensation have been able to continue attracting the best and brightest technicians.

RepairPal Top Shops are excellent examples of this. These shops tend to have a core group of very experienced technicians who have been working together for many years. Mixed in with this core group are a smaller number of younger technicians (most often these are fairly recent trade school graduates) who are willing and able to learn from the more experienced group. It takes a commitment from both the shop owners and technicians to make this work. At this critical stage in the development of our next generation of automotive technicians, we need more shops committed to this never ending training process.

As part of our RepairPal Top Shop assessment process, I have the opportunity to get to know these shops and their employees. I am continually impressed with the quality I find. I have often thought to myself if I had been working in a shop of this caliber, perhaps I would still be working in the trade. It’s not that I don’t enjoy my work at RepairPal, I most certainly do! It’s just that some shops are so much better at taking care of their employees, I cannot help but wonder what it would have been like if things had turned out differently for me and others like myself who have recently left the trade.

It is not cheap for a shop to take care of their employees. Tools, training, certifications, and fair compensation certainly add up. Shops that provide all of these things will generally have to charge more for their repairs than those that do not. So, how will you know if a repair shop has the qualifications to back up the prices they charge? That is where RepairPal comes in. We have done the homework for you. You can rest assured that all RepairPal Certified shops have proven to the AutoPro team at RepairPal that they have what it takes to get your vehicle repaired.

About the Author

Jim Taddei has been in the automotive field since 1975 and has over 25 years of experience with General Motors products, achieving the designation of GM Master Technician. He is also currently certified as an ASE Master Technician, and holds an Advanced California Smog Check License. He has been the lead technician and team leader at a multi-line dealership. After leaving the dealership he spent a couple of years working in an independent shop and now uses his experience and expertise to help verify the quality of RepairPal Certified shops.

20 User Comments

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By , January 25, 2013
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.
By , March 16, 2013
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.
By , April 12, 2013
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.
By , October 18, 2013
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
By , November 06, 2013
Industry is crashing and burning.
By , December 16, 2013
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.
By , January 28, 2014
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.
By , March 07, 2014
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
By , May 23, 2014
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.
By , January 26, 2015
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.
By , January 26, 2015
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.
By , January 26, 2015
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
By , March 11, 2015
There is a sortage of skilled techicians because the industry has maximized FLSA exemption and poor "piece work" salary paradigms to convince those of us with excellent critical thinking skills to leave for more civilized work. There is no respect for work ethic, knowledge or education, just speed and willingness to work 6-7 days per week. Most companies can't afford or wont afford quality contributions to family health benefits, or a meaningful 401K contribution, and think that technicians don't deserve a reliabe salary, but merceneary pay of "flat rate", thus, we are not loyal or committed, and are leaving to pursue more reasonbable avenues. The industry is now left with lube techs doing the "simple maintenance work" bcause there is some fantasy being shared in dealership management that all the work is mantenance, not skilled work. Enjoy your industry,we'll be over here watching and laughing!
By , March 21, 2015
Been turning wrenches for 36 years now. There is no doubt that the industry is getting harder, if not impossible to stay in. I've been in ag and fleet service most of my career and the way the employers are squeezing the last ounce of productivity out of the tech by cutting time allowances for virtually every job amounts to a pay cut. 40% or more of my time is running down complex electrical and electronic issues, that, if you haven't seen it before, always run over allowed. I dare anyone who is not in this industry to look at a modern vehicle wiring schematic ( many vehicles have 50, 60 pages or more) and tell us we don't deserve better compensation. The electrical systems can be a real nightmare anymore and mistakes can be very costly. Even static electricity can fry an expensive component. I would not recommend this vocation to anyone. I used to love what I do but I have grown to hate it. 5 years at the most and I am done.
By , October 18, 2015
went to school for auto tech. got my degree. That didn't mead crap when i actually started to fix cars for a living. I realized really early in the game the industry's health was declining really quickly because all of the senior technicians i would work with at various shops would all basically say the same thing here... the skill is truly under paid and its because the american way of life is to live on debt. vehicles are so freaking expensive that people don't even buy them any more, they lease them so they can afford a monthly payment to drive essentially a borrowed vehicle. When this happens the automotive manufacturers sees a positive response form the customer base then continues with advancements with things like linking your stupid iPhone to your cars gps system or a module soley responsible for operating your trailers lights and braking and don't get me started on the demand for fuel economy to increase with all of these excessive loads along with demand for decreased emissions. my point is that if the technology increases at this rate then naturally the diagnostics and technical repair should increase as well however because the vehicle is completely bought on debt the customer doesn't actually deserve all of the tech in the vehicle and will not understand why getting their memory seats to work correctly should cost 600 to 800$ diagnose ( your basically diagnosing a robotics system at this point). Think about the fact of how much an elevator mechanic makes vs an auto tech. who owns the elevator and who owns the vehicle... who pays for the elevator to stay operational and who pays for the vehicle to stay operational. fact is vehicles advanced too quickly for their own good. -service engineer- (the guy dealer techs call when they're stumped)
By , October 30, 2015
I left the business in 1998 after 25 years turning wrenches. At that time I was making $24.50/hr in a busy dealership. The dealer went bust, and I wasn't going to travel 25 miles to the next decent paying dealer so I found other work. Looking back now, getting out of the trade was the best thing I ever did. The local dealer techs make about $15/hr tops now and still no benefits or retirement. Forget finding a guy who knows what he's doing or one that has all the tools he needs to do the job correctly, they just can't afford it. ASE certs are the responsibility of the tech, as they were then, but the cost of those tests isn't cheap either. Dealer training was already all but non existent even back when I left, if you wanted training, you had to do it on your own time online, and most still didn't have internet access back then. If you did, it was dial up and too slow to view a video or live training. I don't see why or how any guy starting out would or could afford the cost of tools, training, and his own benefits to work for what is likely to soon be minimum wage.
By , February 17, 2016
Visitor , february 17, 2016 Amen I was a tech for 20 years ,4 dealerships then and independent for the last 15 years until a company came along and charged him $1000 dollars a month for a coach. This coach was going to teach him how to maximize his profit and free up his afternoons so he could golf or spend time with the family. The coach showed him the ways of the dealerships and how to screw his customers and employees. The service writer a 16 year veteran quit within weeks after a breakdown from the amount of the bills. The guy next to me quit within months and I quit 2 years later because I couldn't bring myself to walk out on him after 15 years and leave him on his own. I had a decent electrical backround and applied for an industrial maintenance mechanic job. I've been doing this for 8 years now. Steady pay ,payed sick days,good insurance, no slush down your back,no dealing with the public and there is a huge shortage of techs in that world. More and more ex auto techs every day! The skills we have alot of them lack and they are amazed at what we know and can do. The only downsides that I can see are the shifts and everyone in the building wants you to help them fix their car.(this leads to alot of sidework though,if you want it.) You probably won't because alot of times you can work overtime or a holiday and make time and a half or double time. No more working 45-50 hours a week and getting payed for 30. GET OUT NOW, TIMES A WASTING !!!!!
By , April 13, 2016
I can't say it better my self. I am an entry level Technician who understands the importance of electrical systems and diagnosing our vehicles we rely on so heavily. Coming into the industry I have invested in thousands of dollars to perform my job the best that I can. From my experience I am seeing Techs being underpaid at every shop I come across and it is driving them out of the industry. In addition to that, the very same thing the article explains I was told in person by the Chef at my local County Fleet Services. He explains, "All the baby boomers are leaving and it is becoming extremely difficult to train these Technicians seeking a position to fill in for my retirees".
By , May 31, 2016
I've worked in the repair automotive field for 46 years. I started out at dealers then got my own shop. It was a Gulf station and life was great, good money, my own boss. I had a great relationship with my customers. I think I enjoyed that more then the cars. I got out in 2009 when the economy went bad. I was using retirement money I had put away for retirement. I felt good fixing cars, but like most of you are saying, things got so high tech so fast I got behind, like a Timex watch in a digital age. I also lost confidence in my abilities. Not good. I guess maybe I need to reinvent myself because I need a job and need to work. My advice to young guys would be to get a job with the state, county or government where you get a good pension, so when you get to be my age you'll be ok.
By , March 10, 2017
U know I been a master technician for 22 of the 28 years doing automotive repairs. And my abilities to repair any and all is very wide to very technicial . I been told that I can do what others cannot, and that I produce clean cut work and quality repairs . And in this business it's either born in u or it's not. No inbetween. The only differences between a doctor and I is that he can barie his mistakes and I got to fix mine till customer is happy. And the money doctors make verses me well that be different story. We technician will never be able to make what we are truly worth in this field. NO RESPECT at all and RESPECT is earned not given so why we not get what we are truly worth as a doctor is But good luck to all and make god bless us .