Is It Worth Being A Mechanic? (Mechanic says …)


I love being a mechanic. When I was a young man with a ton of energy and no sense of direction, a wise man told me a secret – do something you’re passionate about!

Is it worth being a mechanic? The worldwide auto industry is going through a period of great change. As electric and gas/electric auto sales gain momentum, the industry will require an army of highly trained auto electric technicians. This presents a fantastic opportunity to pursue a career in auto industry at a pivotal moment in its evolution.

In this post you’ll learn what it’s like being a mechanic, if it’s a good way to make a living and what you should know about working for a dealership.

Why I Became A Mechanic?

Racing engine

My father ran his own garage, sold new and used cars, sold gas, operated a convenience store, tune-ups, collision repair, valeting, re-paints, alignments and spare parts.

Every chance I got I’d be in the workshop, after school, school holidays from as early as I can remember, probably about six years old. No health and safety in those days. I worked with my uncles and the earliest jobs I remember doing included sweeping the workshop, running for tools or helping a mechanic bleed the brakes. I remember I’d have to slide the seat all the way up to reach the pedal.

Most of the mechanics in the shop had a talent for practical jokes and with six techs in one workshop, one gag rolled into the next. I loved everything about the workshop, it was a really exciting place to be and I was hooked.

I never really thought about doing anything else, I wanted to be a mechanic from as early as I can remember.

Is Being A Mechanic Hard

Most days are not that hard, sure it’s psychically demanding and by the end of the day you are tired, but that’s the same for most jobs. Modern cars will change how a mechanic operates though. As cars become more advanced the modern mechanic will be challenged in different ways.

Currently a mechanic is running hard to keep up with technology, the line between automobile and computer is blurring. Cars are already packed with a network of computers and that is set to increase as new technology’s become common place.

Issues that keep mechanics awake at night, include:

  • Keeping pace with technology
  • Stress associated with flat rate
  • Increased volume of admin
  • Finding time for product training
  • Politics in the work place

Physically demanding work was always part of the job but in recent years the stress level has increased. Time is always the enemy and not just the customer in the waiting room or your service adviser biting your ass. The flat rate clock is always on and can be a source of huge stress for some mechanics.

I’ve seen lots a good mechanics leave the flat rate system operated by the main dealers to go work at an independent shop for straight time, and most are really happy with the move.

Future mechanic

Ever increasing complex electrical issues, new technology’s with less maintenance requirements means the industry is evolving. The mechanic of the near future will be making a ton more electrical repairs and a lot less oily mechanical repairs.

The future for the auto looks set to rely heavily on the electric motor. A mechanic of the near future that isn’t comfortable with electrical, and diagnostic repairs is going to have a hard time as a mechanic and will become obsolete quickly.

Why Are Mechanics Paid So Poorly

Transverse engine

It’s true, a mechanic is I believe an under paid and under valued member of the workforce. Mechanic’s are commonly paid an hourly rate or on “Flat rate”. An hourly rate or straight time is more common when working at an independent shop, chain or fleet operation and they tend to have happier employees. Flat rate is commonly paid by main dealers and is a soar point with many tech’s.

What is flat rate?

Flat rate is simply a system where you are paid by the job, and each job is assigned an amount of time to be completed. The time is set by the manufacturer (in the case of main dealer warranty) and also the auto industry. If the tech completes the job well within the time allotted he gets paid the full allotted time. If, however tech takes longer than the allotted time, they have to suck it up.

I believe mechanics are paid poorly because allotted times for each job have been trimmed over the years to a point where the

How does flat rate work?

The type of work you’ll do at a dealership falls into two categories. 1 – Warranty work or 2 – Customer pay. When a customer car rolls into a dealership, their car may require one or both types of work.

Warranty pay

Campaign recalls are common, these are repairs that need to be made to customer cars at no cost to the customer. Could be something as simple as a small wiring modification or something much more challenging.

Warranty flat rate time for most manufacturers is usually pretty tight, meaning it will take the tech all of the time allotted and some to nail the repair, initially. However the tech usually finds a short cut and starts to make up time on each warranty job.

Manufacturer’s hold all the cards, they see the real time taken for each job and use an average to trim down the allotted time. It’s not impossible to earn money on warranty work, some jobs pay great but most jobs don’t.

A tech is encouraged to look at warranty as part of the bigger picture. They’ll tell you it’s the price you pay to work at a dealership.

Customer pay

This is the gravy and it’s where the tech makes up for all those crappy paying warranty jobs. Customer pay allotted times are far more generous than manufacturer set warranty allotted times.

The work flow of a mechanic at a main dealer might look something like this. Tech pulls car into his work bay and checks his monitor for work listed. The monitor will list all the work, customer pay) and or warranty pay. Each line on the monitor is viewed as an individual job and is allotted a time for completion.

For example,

  • Line 1 – Multi point safety check .15 hrs.
  • Line 2 – Front brake job Rotors and pads 2 hrs. (Customer pay)
  • Line 3 – Campaign nu 1234 .15 hrs. (Warranty pay)

Line 1 – The tech is given .15 hrs (9 min) for multi point safety checks (brakes and tyres). This is law in some states, if vehicle enters the workshop area it must receive a safety check. Often the tech isn’t paid for these checks, they’re offered free to the customer in the hope of up selling.

Line 2 – That means the tech is given 2 hours to complete a front brake job. A mechanic can nail this type repair in under an hour, easy. The tech has now worked on this repair for one hour but gotten paid for two.

The hourly rate is usually negotiated between the shop manager and the tech, it’s based on their experience and is recorded in their contract of employment.

Line 3 – Campaign nu 1234 is a warranty recall and checking the info in the manufacturers portal will show the repair procedure. If it’s an existing campaign you’ll know what’s required and likely nail the repair inside the allotted time. If the campaign is new, you’ll have to spend time reading the procedure and will likely run over the allotted time. You’ll have to suck it up on the first one.

The Psychology Of Dirty Hands

I remember many years ago being asked by a dentist while waiting for an anaesthetic to kick in, what I worked at. When I said I’m an apprentice mechanic, he said, and I believe this to be important “Keep your hands clean son”.

At the time I didn’t give his remark much thought but obviously it struck a cord with me. After living in the world a little, I believe I now understand his remark. I now think he was really saying there’s a relationship between how clean your hands are and the amount of money and respect you earn.

I don’t have hard facts but I do offer my life experience and an idea by way of support.

Shortcuts

I read book by Robert B. Cialdini Phd called “Influence” and it helped me understand a little about our mind and how it may effect mechanics pay. Mr Cialdini states our brain is filled with shortcuts (biases) that have evolved over time. The shortcuts are our way of efficiently getting through the our day.

Having to think through every single daily decision we make would require too much time and energy. The shortcut is the evolutionary solution, it’s a rough guide if you like, and is usually correct.

An example of a short cut – Customer walks into a car showrooms and looks at two similar looking cars. One is priced significantly more than the other. The customer knowing nothing about cars, wants a good quality car, so chooses to buy the more expensive model.

The shortcut or bias here is the more expensive model is likely better quality. This of course is likely to be correct but may not be the case at all. Had the customer spent some time considering all the qualities of the cars, he may have made a different decision.

So how does this relate to mechanics pay, you ask? Let me explain. It has been my experience and yes I know I’m generalising, sales employees at large dealerships looked down on their fellow workers, the technicians. Granted my evidence is based on four dealerships, but they were large dealerships and had a huge sales staff turn over.

Mr Cialdini explains our minds can trick us and that we all hold bias, perhaps then I have a chip on my shoulder re sales people and yet I don’t believe this to be so.

My father was a mechanic and salesman, I worked in sales for a year while travelling abroad. I have respect for their craft, sales is a difficult job and valuable skill. After all if the sales people don’t sell the cars the tech’s won’t have cars to work on.

Never the less, the bias of a mechanic being less intelligent is I believe real. The idea has always quietly amused and perplexed me. The technician is as you know a highly trained, multitask-er who possess a unique set of skills. Part old school mechanic, part electrician, part plumber, problem solver, part detective.

They’ve got to bring all their mental analytical skills to bear every time they lift the hood on a problem motor. Tech’s are pretty unique characters, they’ve got to be logical, efficient mentally and physically. These aren’t the qualities we associate with a blunt tool.

So, I ask myself, why would a salesperson, a member of the dealership team that requires no training by law to execute their chosen profession, look down on the technician who spent years training, is tested and state certified. On the face of it, it’s not logical.

Here’s where I believe Mr Cialdini ideas apply to mechanics pay. Dirty hands are associated with manual work and manual work is associated (unfairly) with low skill, low education and low intelligence.

I believe dirty hands triggers a shortcut, which causes otherwise logical people to hold an illogical bias. Bottom line – the bias promotes low pay.

Can Mechanics Make Six Figures?

vw engine

Yes a mechanic can make six figures but he/she won’t do it in a dealership. A mechanic will need to open their own shop and specialising in a particular brand will increase your chances of hitting the six figure income.

Specialising allows the mechanic who is now also a business person take advantage of specialist opportunities. Product knowledge will allow the mechanic work faster. You’ll see the same problems over and over again. Spare parts and accessories is another area easily exploited when specialising in a brand.

Focusing on foreign brands will help insulate you from competition as many mechanics don’t like working on them. In addition, parts and info may not be difficult to come by. These are all great opportunities for a mechanic that’s willing to learn and source a reputable parts supplier for a particular brand.

Specialising in the repair and maintenance of classic and vintage cars is another fantastic area to earn six figures. You won’t do it over night but, it’s possible to build a fantastic small business taking care of classic cars.

Why Do Mechanics Buy Their Own Tools

Tools are really important to me, they’re personal. Many of my tools I’ve had since I was an apprentice. They remind me of places, people and even particular jobs. Ask any mechanic and he’ll tell you his tools are very personal, breaking lousing or having a tool stolen is really hurts.

I’m glad mechanics buy their own tools because I can’t see too many advantages to shop supplied tools apart from the cost.

Sure supplying your own tools is a strange concept, after all the service adviser doesn’t supply his own desk, computer and chair. But at the same time, I understand why mechanics supply their own tools.

Shop tools for the most part are treated like crap, they’re rarely where they are supposed to be and are very often broken or lost. It comes from the psychology of nobody owns them so nobody really cares.

There’s the obvious disadvantage to owning your own tools, you’ve got to buy them. A tech could easily spend between 30 to 50 thousand dollars on tools (Incl tool chest). That’s a lot of wrenching to pay off.

But the advantages far outweigh the cost. First off the tools are yours and will be in your tool box where you put them, not missing in action. There are few things worse than wandering the shop looking for speciality tools, all the while the flat rate clock is ticking, sole destroying. Imagine that every-time you needed a 10 mm wrench….Araghh!!!

Because your tools are personal, you’re familiar with them. You instinctively know which tool works best for any given situation. This takes time to learn which isn’t often fully appreciated.

Doing a little wrenching on the side, no problem bring your tools home, imagine the performance around that scenario if the tools were shop owned.

Decided to move to another shop, not a problem you are a fully equipped to do the job and although the new workshop may be unfamiliar to you you, the tools won’t be.

Why Is A Mechanic’s Labour So Expensive?

Some shops really do charge a ton for labour, but labour is an unfair tag for the costs. When the invoice says labour it includes all the costs associated with supplying the service. Costs such as buildings, equipment, power, insurance, rates etc etc. Equipping and running a modern workshop is expensive.

The average hourly rate charged in a shop is $100-150 but consider the average mechanic earns about $21 per hour (according to indeed.com). The difference in the hourly rate the shop charges and the rate the mechanic gets is the cost of profitably operating a modern workshop.

Flat Rate

Typically the main dealer supplies the premises, lighting, equipment and customers of course and the mechanic supplies the labour, tools and know how. The mechanic agrees an hourly rate with the employer when taking up the position, but he’s not paid by hours worked.

Instead the system operates a system known as “Flat rate”. It means a mechanic gets paid by the job and each job has a set amount of time allotted to it.

If the mechanic can repair it in less time, great he’s up on the deal, but if it takes more time, the mechanic carries the cost of his lost labour hours.

So the labour rate you see on the invoice isn’t a true reflection of the mechanics pay. Some jobs will go great and some turn to s*&t, it’s swings and roundabouts. Consider also a mechanic must buy their own tools, spending between 30 to 50 thousand dollars is as you know quite common.

Workshop cost

Running a workshop isn’t cheap either although a mechanic brings their own tools, specific dealer level tools will be required to carry out repairs to their brand. The dealer has no choice, they must buy them. Most dealerships have a tool room with a ton of shiny new specific tools that have never been used and likely never will be.

The main dealer must make constant investments in training and equipment to keep pace with dealer policy. These demands are ever increasing and dealers will tell you the administration is a real headache.

Consider also, most manufacturers will only pay warranty bills to dealers if all procedures including admin have been executed in accordance with manufacturers policy. They will hold back or simply not pay out if all isn’t in order. To my mind the main dealer is under the illusion he works for himself, he really works for the manufacturer.

What Is The Average Hourly Rate For Auto Repair?

Here’s a chart showing the average hourly rate at the dealers independent shops and at the chains. The rate will vary in accordance to the brands and location, higher costs like rents and taxes will obviously feed into the hourly rate.

$ Hr
Dealer100-150
Independent shop80-100
Chains80-100

What Is The Life Expectancy Of A Mechanic?

Being a mechanic is a physically demanding occupation. Fumes, dust, chemical vapours from oil and fuels. Wear and tear on the body’s nervous system caused by air tools is only now becoming common knowledge.

Mechanics are a tough bunch though and while we might moan about pay and flat rate, truth is, most of us don’t want to do anything else. I still love wrenching and I’ve been doing it for 30 plus years. My body is holding up well I can pretty much do everything I could do at 18, just takes me a little longer.

Some jobs I don’t look forward to, my body protests when I try to push it under a dash board, but as a senior mechanic you can pass those jobs along to some of the younger apprentices.

As to how long do mechanics live? I don’t know the country wide average but I can tell you honestly I know plenty old mechanics who had a great life swinging wrenches and most kept swinging them as a hobby even after retirement.

It is hard profession on your body if you let it, but if you work for a good company that take health and safety serious and you respect your body you’ll have a long, healthy happy career wrenching.

Good Time To Be A Mechanic?

Being a mechanic is challenging, that won’t change. Successive models of cars, trucks, agri etc will all increase their use of technology. More technology will require techs with excellent product knowledge.

I think it’s a great time to be a mechanic, if you are willing to truly dedicate your working life to the industry, you’ll excel, without a doubt.

Automotive systems are becoming a ton more complex, shops are in dire need of well trained mechanics that know their s%&t. As a mechanic, staying on top of technological advancements requires effort. You won’t usually get the time during your working day to read in dept about the systems. It will likely mean investing some of your own time, gaining a deep understanding of all the systems.

If you invest your time in this way, you’ll find it’ll quickly pay off. You’ll become the resident go to problem solver in the workshop which a good foreman/shop owner will notice.

Being the resident problem solver will make you indispensable and that will allow you negotiate better pay and perks or a better position.

It’s a fantastic time to be a mechanic. It’s just as exciting today as it was when I was a kid, it hasn’t lost its magic. The wheel will always be with us and it will always require repair. The key to success in this industry is to stay relevant. Keep your knowledge up to date, deploy it efficiently and intelligently.

I wish you great success in what ever field you choose, I’ll close with the great advice I got as a young man – Do What You Love!

Related Question

What are the disadvantages of being a mechanic? Some disadvantages of being a mechanic include:

  • Work under constant time pressure
  • Some jobs require lots of physical effort
  • Struggle to keep pace with complex auto technology
  • Pay structure
  • Shop politics

John Cunningham

John Cunningham is an Automotive Technician and writer on Rustyautos.com. I've been a mechanic for over twenty years, I use my knowledge and experience to write articles that help fellow gear-heads with all aspects of classic car ownership, from tires to roof aerials and everything in between.

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