Monday, 30 June 2003 10:00

Skilled techs discuss the state of the CR industry

Written by Dick Strom

Bill Mauldin, the pen behind the "Willie and Joe" cartoons in WW2-era editions of the Army's Stars and Stripes, died recently. Following the war, Mauldin published his cartoons with explanations of the incidents that inspired them in Up Front With Bill Mauldin, the first of two Pulitzer Prize winning books. Mauldin, whose characterizations have evoked more cheers and scorn than possibly any other war cartoonist, could empathize with the quandary of battle-weary Army infantrymen because he was one of them. 

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The universal nature of the "Catch 22" situations that engulfed Willie and Joe are easily recognized by anyone who has been in the service, especially those who've seen frontline duty. Mauldin's simple drawings and one-liners made light of even the most horrific of front-line circumstances, and put "lord it over" officers and enlisted men into proper perspective.
Existing under nightmarish conditions for the duration of a long, ugly war, the front-line infantryman's life consisted of carrying out whatever impossibility "high brass," - too often far removed from the realities of foxhole warfare - directed . . . and doing it under inconceivable physical, mental, and dietary conditions. Hopefully these men would live long enough to return to whatever shambles of family life remained after their years of forced absence.
Mauldin's humor

Mauldin knew the brief moments of humor his cartoons afforded was all the R&R most would experience - a chance to laugh lest they mentally break down. And many did break down. My father, a Sea-bee in the South Pacific for nearly three years, tells of seeing war-hardened Marines, severely battle-fatigued and shell-shocked from fierce combat, being led around like little children by Corpsmen before being sent home to who knows what semblance of a future.

Some high-brass like General George Patton, who often were deservedly the butt of Mauldin's humor, hated Mauldin's characterizations. Others, such as General Eisenhower, realizing the morale boost that Willie and Joe provided, encouraged Mauldin to continue, concurring with Mauldin's basic philosophy that, "In my cartoons I build a shoe; if someone wants to put it on and loudly proclaim that it fits, that's his problem."

Many Mauldin cartoons made light of reality situations in officer-enlisted man co-existence. In one, Willie, lying wounded and sick in a hospital bed, is surrounded by prim and proper officers who agree among themselves that, "…at least he should try to lie at attention." In another, an officer standing on a cliff overlooking a breath-taking sunrise, comments to another, "Beautiful view!… Is there one for the enlisted men?"

Far from lacking respect for good military leadership, Mauldin fully understood the futility of any military trying to win without a strong command. The same principle, of course, is true in business; the ideal leader (military, business, or whatever) is, as Mauldin wrote, ". . . firm and just, a person to be honored and given respect due a person who knows his profession. He [the good shop owner/manager in our scenario] is like a prizefighter's manager in that, if he keeps his fighter in shape, that fighter will make him successful."

Good leadership needed

Unfortunately, good leadership is not always the case. As many of us have experienced self-serving military personnel, today there is no shortage of inconsiderate shop owners and managers in our industry. The difference, though, is that techs have wheels on their toolboxes for a reason, and can't be court-martialed or executed for desertion.

Though each employee in our business is an integral part, ask yourself, "Who is my prizefighter? Who would be most difficult to replace?" If your experienced collision techs is your answer, seriously consider the following comments gleaned from twenty-plus techs with from 15 to 43 years of collision repair experience, the vast majority of whom expressed a growing discontent over the way this industry and its employers are headed. The following comments give some insight into why.

No major complaints

Some techs are relatively satisfied with the status quo.

Pennsylvania technician, Henry Netter, who has penned articles for BodyShop Business magazine, wrote, "I've worked practically every aspect of collision repair, including shop ownership, for over 40 years. I presently work an average of 10-12 hours/day, plus many Saturdays. I appreciate my employer allowing me a flex-time schedule (2 AM -2PM), which allows me to pick up my daughter from school and get dinner on the table before my wife gets home from work. Shops are regulated by insurers because insurers have the money, and so, the power. For every shop fighting to remain independent of insurer control, there are many waiting to sign-on to reap the alleged benefits of being a DRP.

"Owner/tech relationships are much like a marriage; both parties have to work together to keep alive the business on which we both depend. I still enjoy many aspects of collision repair, but the physical demands are wearing me out. I buy every labor-saving device that will make my life easier, and my managers, knowing I have an arthritic hip and other physical problems, send some of the "train wrecks" to the younger techs.


Strong shops will survive

"Only strong shops will survive: Smaller shops are trying to hold on, medium-sized shops are being eaten up by consolidators, and mega-shops will do anything to keep their overhead covered. But as long as an employer shows his employees that they are as important to him as are his insurer accounts that bring in the work, then the workforce should be loyal to that employer. If the owner doesn't care, though, why should his employees?"

Another long-term tech said: "If newer techs will stay the course, they will find collision repair to be a good career with good money. But most give up too soon. There is a lot to learn repairing today's vehicles, and the really good money doesn't happen over night. Once they learn the skills, speed will follow with more money on its heels. But then, money won't necessarily bring happiness; a love of what one does, will."

Still another stated, "Collision repair has always been a profitable business for my family. We've made many friends along the way, and have a good relationship with insurers and other shops across the nation. If I were a consumer needing repairs, I'd want my car fixed by a person who enjoys what he does. The only hard part of this job is dealing with the consumer, and with those idiots out there who would tell a man how to run his shop without considering if this new way will improve profits. I hope other experienced techs don't give up. All techs should seriously consider, 'Do I repair cars because I enjoy it, or because it's the only thing I know how to do'"

Independent techs

"I've been making a decent living repairing cars for dealers and reworking muscle cars, etc. I've been much happier since I walked away from insurer steering, and a double-sheeting former employer with a 24/7 work-attitude. I rarely do insurance work, and then only for close friends. I'd support a widespread tech strike, but doubt it will ever happen because too many techs can't afford the risk. But it doesn't take long doing side jobs at home to build up a clientele base large enough to support a family."

Another replied, "No shops in my area want the quality of work I want to produce. I get much more satisfaction working on old iron [classic and custom vehicles], and I find my customers aren't nearly as hard to please as with collision work. I also do small repairs for used car dealers; this work is steady and they pay when the work is done, which keeps groceries on the table.

"When I quit my last shop, my boss told everyone I'd be driving a truck within a year, but I'm still fixing cars, loving it again, and dealing with NO stress. I wouldn't trade this off for the world."

Techs seek changes

The vast majority of responses were from experienced techs unsatisfied with their present working conditions. Employers might want to take notice.

A tech with 23 years experience (who learned the trade from his father, a 50-year veteran of collision repair) stated, "I can fix anything, but I get stuck with more than my share of the hard hits (for which I'm paid an extra $.25/hour for my experience - wow!). Though I'm not happy with my work situation, I am resigned to the fact that things aren't any better in other shops. Rather than blame insurers for our problems, I think it is the fault of shop owners who have let things get so far out of control. Insurers took advantage of shop owners since the owners allowed them to.

"I'd like to see all shop owners take a stand against insurer influence; owners who have stood together to cut techs' pay can stand together against insurer influences. Though I doubt a tech "strike," as many techs have suggested, will fly, it disturbs me that shop owners will take money from us techs to make up for their losses, rather than going after insurers. Now that owners are scraping the bottom of the barrel to find techs, they want us to put our necks on the line so they can stay in business. I can't wait for the tech shortage to reach crisis stage, so I can recoup what I should have been getting all along."

Not for my son

Twenty-nine year tech, Dan Penn, commented, "Unless this industry changes drastically, and soon, I don't want my son doing this line of work. Granted, the labor rate has gone up some over the years, but crash program times have gone down accordingly. We're now doing multiple paint processes for which we're allowed far less time and materials than what single-stage allowed years ago: There's been an obvious conspiracy between information providers' and insurers' willingness to accept certain estimating systems.

"As for the new generation of wannabe techs, I don't even want to pass my information on to most of them (most have the ambition of a slug!) Why should we experienced techs reward insurers for cutting our throats by training the younger generation of techs?

"I think good, honest shop owners are getting shafted in the process too. My present employer treats me as well as he is able, and I know he would treat us better if more money were available per job. But he has to receive before he can give, and insurers never have been in a giving mode. My opinion: Dump DRPs and insurer-owned shop consolidations, stop steering, give experienced techs respect, and pay us what we are worth. Or maybe we should all become post-repair inspectors and make life miserable for insurers and their DRP shops."

A former Texas collision tech said, "I became a collision repair instructor four years ago. Though I loved my years as a tech, I never once received a pat on the back or even a kind word from my employer. But as an instructor, I enjoy good pay that increases each year, and I now go to work each day with pride instead of an attitude.

"Back in the shop we experienced techs were treated with contempt, even though I was the first one at work each day, the last to leave, and never called in sick or took time off (except for a two-week barely-paid-for vacation each year). Just because we fix cars doesn't mean we're illiterate. I do believe licensing techs might help (plumbers and electricians must pass accelerated levels of testing before going out on their own).

"Collision repair takes much more skill and knowledge than most other trades, but with insurer involvement the free-enterprise system can't exist, and so shops can't afford the benefit packages of other trades. It's hard to stay focused in collision repair under such conditions."

Next month's article will continue this topic of issues that are breeding discontent among techs. As always, I invite your comments and concerns on this or any repair-related subject.

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