Thursday, 31 July 2003 10:00

Skilled techs talk about what irks and frustrates them

Written by Dick Strom

In last month's article, you read candid opinions straight from the keypads of skilled techs, describing what they see wrong with business-as-usual collision repair and their views on what good employers should do if they want to keep them with their shops.

This month, techs express further opinions about how employers treat their employees, the quality and attitudes of up-coming techs, changing responsibilities with no additional compensation, and conditions created by large chain repair shops, among other topics.

Culpability of employers

A number of long-term techs from across the country voiced almost identical sentiments as those expressed by a west-coast body tech with 26 years experience; one who has repaired all sizes of wrecks, but is tired of getting stuck with all the "biggest of the biggest."

"I'm not happy with the direction this industry is taking; the DRP issues, unreasonable cycle time, better-than-new attitude, insurers demanding lower prices and bosses giving them, terrible working conditions, and little to no respect for our abilities.

"I believe the fault lies squarely on the shoulders of employers; insurers are just taking advantage of spineless shop owners who don't know how to properly run their businesses. Owners find it easier to take money from their techs than to rock the [insurance] cartel boat.

"If shop owners would try working together rather than cutting each other's throat, a strong association could be formed across the country without breaking any anti-trust laws. But owners are too lazy to do it. They find it easier to kick their workers into submission, lower the labor rate, crack the cycle-time whip, and yell, 'It's my way or the highway.'"

Lateral moves - a change of scenery

When I asked what this seasoned tech would require of his employer to keep him from moving, he responded, "Lateral moves [moving to employers who offer basically the same conditions as does the present employer] are silly, though a change of employer is sometimes refreshing. I'd need better all-around compensation then my present boss gives. Before I'd move, my prospective employer would need to show a real interest in why I'm considering leaving, to understand I'm not his personal robot, that I have personal needs and wants also, that he can help me grow or watch me leave him also . . . that it's his choice.

"To keep me in my present place of employment will require respect, better pay, respect, better working conditions, respect, better benefits, respect, retirement/pension plan, respect, listening to me, respect, treat all employees as people . . . Oh, and did I mention respect?

"If I had a son interested in entering this trade, I'd do whatever necessary to discourage the idea. If present trends continue, DRP programs will get stronger, [insurer] cartel-owned shops will grow in numbers, and what was once a skilled trade will be reduced to production-line/sweat-shop work - not much to look forward to is it? Most every experienced tech I know of has a bad attitude; does the course this trade is taking have anything to do with that? I think it definitely does."

Quality of new techs

Another long-term tech made an interesting observation concerning the younger generation of techs: "The less experienced techs I work with have a much lower tolerance for the collision repair business. They expect to be making big dollars by the time they're 30, and if that doesn't happen, they're gone!"

Said another veteran, "Around here they're expecting the big dollars by age 20, or less. They get out of school knowing much less than I did at that age, and expect a starting wage equivalent to what I make with my years of experience."

Several techs voiced the opinion that there are plenty of techs out there, but that the really good ones are hard to find because they are contentedly working in good shops that take good care of them. Several also pointed out that the shortage of good techs is going to get worse ". . . unless something can be done to interest good, young, hard working people into joining our industry."

Another, a third-generation tech whose father was also a high school collision voc-tech instructor for 28 years, added, "My dad and I have serious doubts about where the next wave of techs will come from. With their high school's addition of a $1.8M collision tech shop, they couldn't attract one first choice student after the inaugural year. Collision repair has become the second, third, or last stop for students on the hit parade before graduation. It's a sad state of affairs. I'll be 40 this year and am seriously considering moving on . . . but to what?"

More responsibilities, no more pay

A midwest tech with 38 years experience, who has in that time worked only for one independent and three dealership shops, doing heavy to light hits and some related mechanical repairs, states, "Ten years ago I was much happier with my job, but during the past 10 years our job description has changed; we techs have had to assume an inordinate number of responsibilities for the repair at the same or less pay then back then.

"I lay most of the blame for the problems we now face at the feet of employers who have given in to every whim of insurers, and paint manufacturers who have agreed to shift some of the paint prep responsibilities to the body tech, without compensation.

"My experience is that employers won't change for our good unless forced to do so. Techs are considered to be replaceable, and are often subtly reminded of that. I keep hearing of a tech shortage, but the real shortage is in good shops in which to work. Where I presently work, though the money and benefits are not great, this is a well-equipped shop, which is better than some I've worked in.

"After just four years in this shop, I'm the senior tech, which says something about the turn-over rate here. I've stayed here only because the conditions at other body shops are generally worse. When a body tech quits here it's because of lack of pay and/or benefits."

Smiling androids?

A collision tech with 29 years experience, located in a north central state, compared the present to foreseeable future state of the collision industry as such: "Concerning the commotion over consoli-dator chain shops, unions, the tech shortage, and what future technicians can expect, I can only suspect that the major new insurer-owned consolidator player is planning for its techs the high-volume, multi-location, anti-union, public investor funded, cheap and fast model popularized by Ray Kroc (McDonald's) and Sam Walton (WalMart).

"Selling finished goods in a retail market is totally different. To someday be reduced to the low respect stature and pay levels of a home improvement store floor-walker, and be viewed as no better or worse than employees in national chain of muffler and oil change shops, is not for me. These will attract, train and build their own workforce of smiling androids. Bring them in young, shore up their esteem, teach them a few job-specific tasks, and put them to work . . . start them out with a few easily attainable production goals, give them small "Pavlovian" rewards to instill a sense of belonging and self-worth, ultimately leading to and reflecting the company view that the company is 'good' and unions are 'bad.'

"It's easy to train young people, shaping their perceptions and expectations toward a company crew because, keeping in mind our country's shrinking industrial manufacturing base, kids that otherwise would have made a career working at a steel mill or auto assembly line will now be attracted to Bondo-conglomerates such as Sterling, and be willing to work for peanuts, not having a pre-existing expectation of a certain standard of living."

Where's the money?

He continued, "Another collision shop labor point to ponder: If those bleats of a technician shortage are true, basic supply and demand models suggest that those few remaining skilled professional techs would recognize this and begin demanding wages which override what current shop manage-ment is giving. Yet for some odd reason skilled techs will accept whatever is offered them.

"Is this because skilled techs are really ignorant of their own true market value? Or are skilled techs aware of their market worth, yet lacking in skills to successfully negotiate true wage and benefit terms with management, or exercise their "walk-away" option? Or does technician skill and experience have no uplifting effect on realized rewards . . . for instance, the pay curve for experienced techs will always be drawn down toward that of wannabes? Or is there no tech shortage at all . . . just a growing trend toward more technicians, skilled or otherwise, who will readily say yes to less?"

Poor working conditions

A 41-year-old tech who was "born and raised in the collision business" has actively done collision repair since age 15, and is an ASE-certified Master Tech stated he has "done just about everything a tech can do in this industry. Having worked mom-n-pop shops to mega-shops, I can say the working conditions techs face across the board are generally poor, the result of poor quality management personnel, cheap shop owners, improper insurance compensation to shops, DRP agreements, and steering.

"Further complicating the compen-sation equation is the high degree of technology built into modern vehicles, a factor crash manuals haven't properly addressed. My experience is that many shops are slow in updating equipment, and don't provide techs with enough training and/or access to repair data. Another area where many shops are lax is in safety concerns; priming and cut-in work, and even some finish spraying is still being done unprotected in the shop area. Smoke eaters, air filtration systems, and dust collectors are available, but since these don't make money, many shops choose not to purchase them.

"From my years in this atmosphere, I've become sensitive to isocyanides, which has made finding a healthy job atmosphere to work in almost impossible. Ventilation, dust collection, more money, a good incentive program, and more vacation time would have kept me with my last employer. But I've given up on being an employee of any shop since my last employer ignored repeated requests that all painting operations be done away from the shop work area. I'm presently looking for a shop to buy so I can return to this trade; I won't return to this trade unless I'm the shop owner.

"I feel I'm one of the better techs. I've spent many great years in this business and am presently swamped with building street rods, plus other side jobs, at home for friends. I believe that for this industry to again attract experienced techs it needs to stop insurers from interfering with our day-to-day operations, to do whatever it takes to stop steering, and to keep pace with non-auto-related industries' pay and benefits packages. Shop owners can't pass along money they aren't making. All shops need an in-house mechanic to help with technological concerns, plus equipment upgrades."

Insurers have too much control

A 20-year tech from the east coast believes all collision industry problems, including those that experienced techs face, result from our being ". . . an industry we no longer control. Insurers have the edge over us because we've lowered ourselves to nursing off insurers. They've also influenced crash programs so shops have to hunt down every operation if they want compensation for it. And shop owners don't spend enough time in the shop to understand the complexity involved in repairing today's vehicles, so they give away the expertise of their technicians like it was of no value.

"Add to this the fact that consumers, being basically afraid of insurers, aren't demanding enough and so they accept whatever insurers offer. I don't view our problems as being directly the fault of employers, but rather the fault of the system; there are too many shops willing to sell themselves short. Consequently, I've already decided to move on to another profession because cars are getting harder to repair, the industry has become too complicated for what we're paid, and I'm getting older. I could go on for hours about the problems with used and imitation parts, no blends, what is and isn't included operations, etc. but it's all futile as long as we're squeezed by the mighty DRP/steering system."

Summing it up

The many concerns you've heard expressed can be encapsulated in a single word - respect.


Dick Strom, Modern Collision Rebuild, 9270 Miller Road, NE, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110; (206) 842-8056; email: moderncol@aol.com.