At first, it might appear to be a straightforward blue-collar job. An automotive technician is able to go to work, put in their hours, head home at the end of the day, and collect a healthy salary on payday. And if that’s what the reality was, there wouldn’t be a shortage of mechanics. The reality, though, is far from ideal.
A Technician’s Early Years
Nearly all of those who start a career as an automotive technician do so immediately after high school. As a trade, just basic certification is required at the post-secondary level to become employable. In many cases, it can be as little as a four-module online course from ASE, or the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence.
Once on the job, it becomes apparent that it’s a less than glamorous start. New technicians are relegated to basic maintenance such as oil changes, tire rotations, and visual inspections. To advance beyond a lube technician requires an investment of thousands of dollars in tools, equipment, and storage. And it’s at this stage that many potential technicians lose interest and find meaningful employment elsewhere.
Personally, this is as far I reached as a technician. Besides the dirty, greasy hands all day, the seemingly fruitless labor, and meager penance, master technicians wholeheartedly advised me that, “If there’s anything else you can do, DO IT.” Most had chronic pain by their forties.
Restricted Access to Training
Once hired, an entry-level technician advances only so far on experience. Apprenticeship training provides skills and knowledge, yet employers are often reluctant to give up a working body for months at a time, even if the returning technician is better equipped. Many technicians never complete more than a few basic ASE Certification courses for this reason, as well as the unpaid time necessary to access these courses.
Once a technician is able to achieve advanced certification, even ASE Master Technician status, education does not stop. Automotive technologies are constantly improving and changing, and it requires continuous ongoing education throughout a technician’s career to stay current. The challenge of ongoing education for a blue-collar job is found to be tiresome, and time spent on bettering themselves is almost always at their own expense.
A Harsh Work-Life Balance
Technicians often report that they spend long hours at the shop in an effort to pad the hours they’ve made. As a flat-rate technician, paid solely on the jobs completed, it’s a career that can be incredibly rewarding in busy times and a desert when it’s slow. Technicians who achieve the highest pay often spend 50 to 60 hours per week on the bench.
As a career, it can be quite rewarding to be an automotive technician when a job is done right. Yet, financially, auto techs are seemingly underpaid. According to U.S. News and World Report’s 2017 Best Jobs Study, the median pay for automotive technicians in 2015 was $37,850. Comparatively, trades such as plumbers and electricians earn median annual incomes of $50,620 and $51,880 respectively. For similar apprenticeship lengths, that’s a large disparity. Add to that the tool expense a technician has – usually more than $10,000 in tools at any given time – and it seems like auto techs get a raw deal.
An Ongoing Shortage
The realities technicians face in the industry are lower pay than comparable trades, long hours, and the expectation of constant learning throughout their career. It stacks up against the industry, which is adding to the technician shortage. Unless it’s a job they are passionate about, potential tradespeople opt for a career that is the path of least resistance. Low expenses, high pay, and regular hours – none of which the average auto tech can expect.
What Changes Can Be Made?
A ‘magic bullet’ doesn’t exist to quickly make life as an auto tech glamorous and rewarding. However, corrections can be made to improve the automotive technician role and, perhaps, draw in more new talent.
- Switch from flat-rate to salaried positions. While it continues to be a useful motivational tool, flat rate does not benefit the technician as it should. Pay technicians a salary that’s competitive with similar trades.
- Provide paid access to training. Whether it’s reimbursement for courses taken and successfully completed or continuing to pay salary while technicians complete online courses from the OEM, paying techs to train ensures positive results.
- Encourage a work-life balance. Allow technicians to enjoy their family time by encouraging them to maintain a normal workday. Overtime is less necessary with salaried positions also.
While this content does not describe every dealership, nor does it reflect every automotive technician’s experience, I think we can agree that it’s an industry norm. If it continues, the shortage of trained auto techs will worsen.