Choosing a Career, not just a Job
I’ve been hearing about the difficulty in finding good techs for a while now, along with stories about the lack of new techs entering the work force.
There have been a lot of discussions as to why this has been happening and what to do about it. These discussions seem to center on attracting existing techs to a shop by figuring out what they want, in other words the old carrot on the stick approach.
Michael wrote a nice post titled “Drinking Water From a Poisoned Well” that I thought about responding to. I decided I would prefer to write from a different point of view, so here it is.
I have over 40 years experience in the automotive repair industry, I started helping my father and grandfather when I was 10 years old. When each of my two boys reached the point that they were thinking about careers of course they both leaned towards the automotive repair business. They both enjoyed working on their own cars as well as their friends.
As a family we sat down and discussed what they enjoyed doing, hobbies they had, how they spent their free time, and what they wanted to be when they grew up. We made a list of jobs that fit and then listed what education was required and what the long term outlook for each job was. We looked at each job as if it was a lifelong career choice as well as a financial investment to be made in their future.
We wrote down all the requirements, educational, financial, both up front and long term, and the potential future of the industry. We also looked at the rewards and drawbacks to each of the jobs, both long term and short term.
When I started working on vehicles in the 70’s the area shop rate was $21.00/hour and the tech was paid $8.00 - $10.00 of that. All you needed to start working as a tech was a small tool box and about $400.00 worth of tools. Not much training was required since not much diagnostic testing was done at that time, things were somewhat simpler then. No extra training was needed, no extra/special tooling was required, and no subscriptions for programming or online information were needed. If you wanted your shop to be up to date each year you purchased a new shop manual or two, or three if you worked on imports, at a cost of $80.00 for each manual. So for a minimal investment you could have a job/career that would last a lifetime. No additional costs except the occasional new socket or wrench. While a good understanding of electricity, engines and transmissions helped it was nothing you couldn’t easily pick up at work while you were working.
To the person starting out back then, the pay was good and the necessary lifetime investment was very low. There were not very many other job choices that took advantage of those skills and gave the same hands on experiences. The other jobs that were available didn’t have any benefits over an auto tech. Those jobs were very similar but paid somewhat less. At that time the job/career of auto mechanic looked like a very good choice.
Today the shop rate runs around $110.00/hour and a tech gets an average of $20.00 - $25.00/hour, a good top tech may make $35.00/hour. For the tech starting out now, let’s look at the job/career of technician the same way as back in the 70s, as an investment in your life. The investment cost today is much higher and the return on your investment is much lower. The initial training costs are a lot higher, knowledge of electronics are no longer an option, you have to know all about electricity and how it acts/reacts. You have to be ahead of the curve, knowing how computers communicate is just one of the higher end requirements. You need to know not just how to do but when to do voltage drops, wave forms, sensor signals, scope use, and the list goes on and on. Today you need to be trained and able to work when you walk in the door, on the job training is no longer an option since it would take months or maybe even years of on the job training under a mentor to learn what is necessary to be a good B tech.
Financially the initial tool costs are huge, even by today’s standards. Thousands of dollars will just buy you an empty tool box. Then there are all the electronic tools, not just the scanners or scopes but VOMs, under car work lights, power probes, electric ratchets/impacts and all the special tools. Of course the shop buys all that special stuff, well, maybe someday it will.
If you look at the investment necessary to be a tech today and start comparing it to other careers and then factor in the return on the investment it is easy to see why so many good people are deciding against becoming technicians. There are so many other good (note I did not say better) job options with a lot less upfront investment costs and almost no training costs to keep current with those jobs. Initial tool costs are low or nonexistent, training is required by state or federal regulations, work conditions are great with fair hours and very good pay. You can choose to have a desk job or work in a warehouse or out in the field. You can even choose to work with customers if you are crazy enough. ;-) Electrician, HVAC, Plumber, Engineer, Programmer, Coder, so many options that are similar but have a much smaller initial investment, better work environment and a much higher pay scale.
Both of my boys made decisions to follow a different career path. They have the option to work on vehicles as a hobby if they decide they want to. Both of them are making at least 3 times the money a tech with the same level of experience and training would be making. My older son moved to California and is making enough that his wife doesn’t have to work, she stays at home with their daughter, they bought a house in the L.A. area and they are able to put money in savings. My younger son, also in California, is making even more money and is living the same way except he and his wife don’t have any children yet so his wife works part time because she likes her job.
If either one had chosen to follow the auto repair business I’m sure they wouldn’t be in the same financial situation that they are in now.
It isn’t just the current working conditions that deter the people looking for a job in the automotive repair industry, it is the financial investment, up front and ongoing, as well as the future of the industry.
If you take all this together, the working conditions, the lack of support from the business owners, the cost of ongoing education and tooling and put it up against the other technology based jobs that are higher paying, better supported, have lower training and tooling costs and better working conditions, it is easier to see why people choose other professions over that of an auto technician.
For those interested, I’m starting to hear that the next phase in the loss of technicians in the automotive repair industry has started. The shop owners have grown frustrated with either no response or poor responses from people applying for the job openings. The shop owner’s solution to that problem is to stop listing the job openings. Those shop owners that are close to retirement age are just going to stick it out with a less than optimum number of employees. The remaining shop owners who have longer to go are just going to take in less work. I would guess those shops will also be less capable as well.
Oh, and the number one reason both my boys gave (three years apart) for not choosing to be an auto mechanic, the poor image the auto repair industry has.
Eric, Thank you for your comments. It fills in some areas that are very important. One could write volumes on this subject and the causes of the lack of available talent. Competitive compensation and more respect are a good start for a recovery.
Helping your kids research a career is time well spent for sure. Young folks don’t always look far enough down the road or know what questions to ask. Hindsight isn’t very deep when you’re only 17 or 18 years old. In the long run a college degree should net a person higher compensation. It does come with a hefty price tag though. The tab for a year of college at a public four-year institution
As a young tech myself (22) I kind of fell into this industry. I like cars, I still do. When I was younger I could tell you each brand, make, and model of every vehicle on the road. I didnt know what exactly I wanted to do but I knew for sure I wanted to be in the Auto Industry. When I was 11 years old I started washing cars at my fathers Taxi Business every summer I got, and I would earn some
Wish you nothing but the best in your career! I’m 26 years old going on 27... little older then you. But with the dedication seems you have I’m sure you’ll do great. Trust me, I know it’s not easy. I know it hasnt Been for me. But keep at it brother. Little by little things will start to click as long as you keep putting the effort in to grow/learn. Definitely feel the same. I wouldn’t do
Your welcome Mr. Garcia, thank you for those kind words. Couldn't agree with you more, well said.
Alejandro, I am so happy to hear that you have a passion for this business. You are creating value as you add skills and experience to your resume. There will be experiences in your life that will make you want to quit, move on and do something else. For me, I took that journey and I am right back in. Make sure that your compensation will meet your needs for the present and the future. Working
Alejandro, I agree with Mike. I have been in this industry since 1976. The proper way to set your rates is to determine what you need to live and a little extra for savings. This industry has been going through a major shift the last decade. That shift is quickly becoming a cataclysmic shift. There is much resistance from the motoring public that can't understand why car repair is sooo expensive
Thank you for the advice Mr. Bauld, and the compliment as well!
Well here in my area (San Diego, CA) it is very expensive to buy a home now, but in a few years I may consider moving. The Business is moving towards getting out of the Taxi leasing business. Right now I am in the process of looking for a change of pace, and environment. But anyway everything is in good terms I have my reasons but it may be my time to move on, and see what I can bring to the