The Industry as I See It

Before became an instructor in 2001, I worked in the field for 25 years; the last fifteen of those years were at a dealership in a nearby town that has from 20-25 mechanics and cycles 100 cars a day through those service bays, and I saw a lot of guys come and go during the time I was there. I was the only drivability/electronics guy they had for several years and I had to work out 12-15 cars a day.

But the point is that there was quite a bit of turnover in the service department. I saw some guys who were really good at doing the work but would miss at least one if not two days a week.

I saw other guys who were really efficient and good at their work and came to work every day but had to borrow tools from just about everybody else in the shop because their toolboxes were almost empty.

I saw one guy who came to work with about $30,000 worth of Snap On tools he didn’t know how to use – he couldn’t fix a ham sandwich.

I saw some young guys with no training who came in doing oil changes and tires and graduated to belts, hoses, and used car inspections, but couldn’t fix much of anything beyond that, even after factory schooling.

I saw engine mechanics who could do heavy engine repairs well but couldn’t get the fine tuning done when their wrench-twisting was done – and the dispatcher would pass their jobs to me to have them straightened out.

I’ve also worked with some really great mechanics who were crisp, capable, and sharp, but were looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and bounced around from job to job looking for that gold.

Some mechanics are gifted at doing the work but take a mess with them wherever they go – their benches are piled high with junk and their service bay floors are filthy and some of these “messies” leave greasy marks on the fenders, the steering wheel, and the floor mats. Even though they turn a lot of hours and do a lot of really good work, their customers are ticked off because of the mess they leave.

But then I also worked with a few guys who had a lot of potential I could see from my vantage point in the shop, but there were some service managers I served under who didn’t seem to understand that virtually every one of us – myself included – was at some point in our career, not as good at our jobs as we would one day be. Not a single one of us was a fine-tuned and perfect specimen of anything when we first began our career, whatever that career might have been. We all had (and have) a lot of room to grow.

The point is that, as you well know, virtually everybody has strengths and weaknesses, and virtually everybody is a work in progress. Lee is obviously no exception to either of those, but from what I’ve been told by people I have working in the field, Lee is superior to technicians who come from much larger for-profit schools – and I’ve worked with some of those people myself and seen it firsthand.

One of my graduates originally started out at one of those big for-profit schools – his father paid $14,000 for a single semester where he learned almost nothing. He left that school, came to my automotive program, finished it, and has worked for about five years at a large dealership in this area, where he is one of their core people and earns a lot of money.

From what I’ve been told by shop owners, mechanics in this area, and even a man who sent his own son to another one of those expensive schools, students who come from those schools in other states have, for the most part, fallen victim to that “buddy” mentality while they were there. It’s a system where their buddies tell them how they can “play the game” and get past their training with the least amount of effort – and it shows when they finally make it to the shop floor, as you have probably noticed.

What I’m leading up to, is that, as an instructor, I’d dearly love to cut cookies (so to speak) and produce a platoon or so of “Top Guns” every four semesters to place at various shops and dealerships in the area. Lord knows there are enough jobs out there, and fewer people all the time to fill those jobs. The local industrial parts rep told me a few days ago that he could put seventeen people to work tomorrow. Shops are vigorously competing for techs and in some cases hiring warm bodies for OJT.

As it is, I work at a state college attempting to provide a service to the alumni and the community by training people – and many who know NOTHING when they come to me – so that they can be a part of the machine that is the American workforce.

We were at that one meeting at a local high school talking to students whose initial (and primary) focus is how they can make the most money, and the welding instructor there does everything he can to convince all his prospective students that if they become welders they’ll make four thousand dollars a week.

And many of them believe that, even though only a small fraction of them will every achieve even a fraction of that.

But with those pie-in-the-sky wage promises, welding programs do very well. They don’t show their recruits the 12 buck-an-hour paychecks most welders get – they show copies and pay stubs of people who make stupid money for very dangerous jobs, either offshore or in some other faraway place.

I could do that same thing, if I showed pay stubs and didn’t tell them anything else – I have people in the field making upwards of $70,000 a year and more. I have a 22-year-old graduate at a dealership in this same county making (from what the dealership general manager told me) more than $900 a week – and earning every penny of it.

Why are we having problems? Well, it’s largely because the perception is that there isn’t a lot of money in mechanic work, that it’s a thankless profession, and that when you first start out in the field, even with training, you’ll probably be doing tires and oil changes in spite of the fact that you spent eighteen months of your life preparing for that career.

Another perception out there is that you have to work too hard and know too much to make a good living as an automotive technician, and there are entire trade magazine articles about shops frequently that don’t treat their mechanics with respect.

There are some shops where I won’t even attempt to place anybody because those places aren’t good places to work. I had one graduate who worked at a dealership where they paid him peanuts because he was young, yet he was the only mechanic they had who could rebuild automatic transmissions – and he turned a lot of hours, only to have the service manager give the pay for those hours to some of the older mechanics who seemed to be having a lot of bad flag weeks in a row and then cut his pay $30 a week based on the hours he actually gave the guy credit for.

One thing I tell people I’m recruiting is that, in this business, you WILL earn what you get paid and your work needs to be perfect 100 percent of the time to garner the respect of your employer and customers. Nothing less will do. After all, what percentage of perfection do we expect from those who make our hamburgers? Would you eat at a place that promised hair-free hamburgers 99 percent of the time?

That being said, every individual is an individual, and, as stated earlier, everybody is a work in progress and everybody brings their strengths and weaknesses with them when they come.

One dealership I know of seems to be willing to hire just about anybody who walks in the door with a toolbox, to include guys with no experience at all, probably in hopes of getting a lot of work done by people who are being paid very little money.

Wouldn’t it be great if there were dozens and dozens of super mechanics out there who could fix anything and would work really cheap? We all know that simply isn’t the case.

Older mechanics are burning out and retiring because they’re sick of the grind and the changing technology; we all know we need new blood in this industry. I’m trying to do what I can to remedy that, and I can’t turn anybody away who wants to enroll in Automotive.

How many teachers do you know who will fail a student or two at the end of a term if that decision will cost them a thousand dollars a month for the next three months?
Yet at the end of just about every spring semester, I’m faced with that decision, and I don’t rubber stamp anybody. If they fail, I fail them and I take the cut in pay as a result.

Why? Because I’m trying to produce good people. I have time to teach them how to do the work, but there are some of my enrollees who don’t know how to work – and that’s very difficult to teach, but it is what it is.

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