I am going to apologize for the length of this article up front. There is so much to cover in order to get my point across. If you are a shop owner or business coach dealing with automotive shops, please read this through. I welcome your thoughts on the matter.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s Automobiles were simpler machines. It took talented mechanics to make it all work together however most answers could be found in the service manuals. Most problems could be seen or heard. A well-trained mechanic could give you a very good idea of what the problem was before even cracking the hood. With a good set of hand tools and a few gauges and electronic gizmos a technician could do most operations.
In the 1980s Emission regulations brought in the advent of electronic controls. The change from carburetors to fuel injection was in full swing. By the end of the 1990s fuel injection dominated the market. Fuel injection gave consumers better fuel economy, more power and longer lasting engines. For the mechanic, now a technician, diagnostic routines required more sophisticated tools to read codes which could be diagnosed using the service manual.
Now we are in 2019. Vehicles are more complicated with many electronic and hydraulic controls. New vehicles utilize dozens of control modules each having their own communications and processor. Many modules are codependent on others. This increases the complexity of the system.
The Amber Service Engine Soon lamp means there is trouble in paradise. How you gonna fix it? The younger generation perceives the technician’s tool is a cell phone paired with a cheap dongle. These dongles give a very small amount of information and rarely read more than the engine and transmission. These are a good tool for a call into your favorite shop to inquire if you should tow or drive in but not the best tool for diagnosis. A code is only the first part of the puzzle. Data needs to be read and interpreted in order to get a clear picture of the problem. Modern technicians use tools that cost thousands of dollars like the one below.
All types of electronic tools are needed. Each one is an expense that the shop owner or individual technician will have to pay for. While on the subject. Most shops require their technicians to supply all their hand tools and air tools. In a recent survey it was reported that the average expense for tools is $300 per month.
The pictured tools are oscilloscopes. The 21st Century technician must interpret waveforms and determine if the component being tested is faulty or not. This often requires research into the part and how it works. There are so many types of wave forms it is impossible to know all of them by memory. The above waveform is for a solenoid. It is functioning normally.
The above picture shows a waveform problem (in Red) with an Oxygen sensor heater circuit. The bottom waveform (in Blue) is a good signal. The top (Red) signal shows that the electronic driver inside the engine computer is faulty.
This screen is from a BMW diagnostic. After some serious time invested, it was discovered the vehicle had aftermarket tuning which disabled the embedded OBDII emissions tests. An expensive computer replacement was required.
Autonomous vehicle technology will ruin your day if you need a windshield or hit a pothole. Radar, Lidar, Camera Systems and other collision avoidance technologies (ADAS) require special fixtures, spaces and training to complete. Additionally, the reset processes are time consuming. Get ready for $500 front end alignments if ADAS is a part of your vehicle system.
The combined cost of the tools pictured is around $18,000. That is 720 billed hours at $25 per hour. That does not include sales tax, interest or payroll tax deductions. Hopefully most shop owners will foot the bill for the expensive ones.
All of these tools require time to learn and training. Training is expensive but necessary for successful repairs. We need top talent to work on modern vehicles. This requires the incentive of good pay, benefits and friendly work environment.
The average starting pay for an Automotive Technician apprentice is around $10 per hour. A Tech School graduate will normally start around $15 per hour. In most cases after a trial period, the Tech School technician is moved to a piece meal type pay system called flat rate. Flat rate has a much more attractive wage at around $25 per hour. The problem is that many technicians never average the advertised wage. The BLS rates the average technician wage at $39,550. BLS info: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/installation-maintenance-and-repair/automotive-service-technicians-and-mechanics.htm Some technicians work very quickly and average more than 100% making the effective wage higher. With flat rate a shop owner can keep technicians when it is slow. They only get paid when they have produced work. If there is no work the technician is required to be at the shop ready for work when it comes in. There is an excellent article written about this. http://iamdistrict250.ca/our-skilled-trades/a-brief-history-of-the-auto-mechanics-trade/
The problem with automotive technician pay is this. In many markets, you can get a job in a plant, in food service, at a call center or many other low skilled jobs for around $15 per hour. These jobs often have other perks such as holiday pay, annual leave, sick leave, retirement and health insurance. So why would a potential technician pay to attend a school for two years in order to make less considering benefits?
All trades now require a higher skill level than in the 1960s. Regulations and new product offerings require training and advanced knowledge. According to the BLS both plumbers and electricians average over $50,000 a year. Most of these positions include benefits. Tool expense is minimal for the worker. Time is paid by the hour. They get travel time, Per Diem expenses on the road and many times a company provided vehicle. BLS info: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/construction-and-extraction/plumbers-pipefitters-and-steamfitters.htm https://www.bls.gov/ooh/construction-and-extraction/electricians.htm
We have a part of our population that likes to work with their hands. They like this type of work. It is challenging and uses the mind as well as the body. We need to make it attractive to diagnose and repair automobiles just like electricians and plumbers. This requires a serious look at how we compensate our automotive technicians.
More on flat rate. When a electrician or plumber makes a mistake in their work, who pays for it? The answer is the contracting company or the contractor’s insurance. In the automotive world the technician normally will fix the problem without compensation. Most of the time the shop will cover the cost of parts. The automotive technician loses their income for the time they are working on the “comeback”. If all trades were this way, I would have no problem with it. It does seem isolated to the automotive technician.
In the future, I expect that flat rate will be used only to estimate the cost of repairs. Technicians will be compensated hourly with a bonus for efficiency. Technicians will still have to pay for their tools. It would only be fair to boost income a few hundred dollars a month to compensate for tool expense. Technicians will receive benefits comparable to other trades such as plumbers and electricians. Technician pay will be more individualized based on the skill that the technician has. In other words, a technician that can diagnose difficult problems will make a higher wage than one that does brakes and CV axles. Diagnostic time will no longer be estimated but charged hourly. With these changes the advertised hourly rate will have to go up. If the shop owner expects his crew to be on location even when there is no work, then he will need to set aside funds to pay his team or send them home.
The upside is by moving from flat rate to a more stable pay structure, technicians will not rush through their work increasing the chances of making a mistake. Technician pay will be in line with other skilled trades.
As demonstrated in this article automotive technicians are not being compensated as well as other trades according to BLS statistics. In order to attract talent and create a more even playing field both the mode and rate of technician pay needs to be addressed. In order to facilitate this change along with emerging technology, shop rates will increase to meet the needs of the technician and the customer.
For this to work, what percentage would shop rate have to go up to restructure pay and benefits in order to facilitate the change?
Thank you for reading,
– Michael Christopherson