Being a mechanic is tough work—especially nowadays. Modern mechanics, now called automotive technicians, must know more than ever before. Techs must be able to troubleshoot the complex electronics found in today’s cars, while also doing traditional, back-breaking mechanical repairs.
That’s a lot to ask when, on average, technicians make just $41,097 a year. And, oh yeah, techs are required to provide their own tools, which cost tens of thousands of dollars, as well.
So, it comes as no surprise that there’s a nationwide shortage of mechanics. Each year, the automotive industry needs to add approximately 76,000 automotive technicians. Around 46,000 of those individuals are required to keep up with growing demand. The other 30,000 are needed to fill slots vacated by employees who quit or retire.
Trade schools are only turning out 37,000 new technicians each year. The math is pretty simple, then. America has an annual shortage of around 39,000 techs. If America doesn’t address the shortage, keeping cars on the road is going to get harder and harder. And more and more people will have to miss work, school, and their family obligations while their car sits awaiting repairs.
Additional Reasons Automotive Technicians are Disappearing
A less-than-impressive average salary and expensive tools aren’t the only factors contributing to the technician shortage. Unwelcome stigma, an absurd flat-rate pay system, and the complexity of modern cars are all contributing factors.
One of the major problems is that techs work under a flat-rate pay system. With flat-rate, instead of getting paid per hour, techs are paid for each job they complete. How much each task provides depends on the “labor time” (a.k.a. “book time”) listed in a standardized labor guide. The guide, however, doesn’t account for unforeseen issues, such as seized parts, that can make a job more time-consuming. And that’s a problem.
Flat-rate is also risky for techs because if there’s no work, they go home with little to no pay. Furthermore, technicians who work at dealerships only get paid a fraction of the “book time” for warranty repairs. Side work, such as mentoring newcomers, often goes unpaid as well.
The stigma attached to automotive repair work is another problem. Society often views mechanics as “grease monkeys”—a stereotype that couldn’t be further from the truth when there’s more computing power in a new car than there was at NASA when they put a man on the moon. Schools reinforce the stigma. As working on cars is often considered low-class, career counselors push young people towards more “prestigious” white-collar jobs that may be less satisfying or even pay less. As a result, fewer and fewer high school graduates want to become a technician, and those who do are pushed away from it.
Complex Modern Cars
Cars are becoming impossibly difficult to work on. Today’s automotive technicians need to know how to diagnose complex computer networks and interpret textbook-sized wiring diagrams. It’s illogical to expect someone with the ability to handle such work to accept a job paying $40,000 a year. Their skills are in too high demand, and they could likely make more money elsewhere.
Modern cars are turning away older technicians as well. Some techs would rather retire than master a completely different set of skills near the end of their careers.
What the Technician Shortage Means for You
A lack of qualified technicians isn’t just a problem for industry insiders—it’s a concern for consumers as well. If the shortage continues, vehicle owners may eventually have a hard time finding someone to fix their car. Drivers could be left without transportation while waiting in queue for a technician.
But there’s currently a more immediate problem at hand: Because of the technician shortage, some repair facilities are less selective about who they hire. While, in the past, most shops only hired highly-skilled individuals, many will take far less-experienced workers nowadays. Nearly anyone with a set of tools and an interest in cars can make it to the frontline.
That’s not to say there aren’t talented automotive technicians. On the contrary: there are countless bright minds still working in shops across the country. But there’s no guarantee you’re getting a talented mechanic at any given shop.
As such, consumers should be more careful of who they let work on their car. Do your homework and make sure your car gets serviced by an industry-trained professional. After all, you don’t want just anyone poking around under the hood.