More Cars and Fewer People to Fix Them

It's a concern shared by most of the nation's roughly 16,700 new car dealerships whose profits are increasingly reliant on servicing the vehicles they sell, and less reliant on profits from the sales of the vehicles themselves. Dealerships are sacrificing margin on sales in favor of putting more cars on the road. More cars on the road lead to more cars in the service bays, and that means more qualified mechanics are needed.

New car dealerships sold a record 17.5 million new cars in 2016, as well as nearly 15 million used cars: 37 percent of the total of all used cars sold.

Service, parts and body shop activity accounted for 47.3 percent of the average dealership's gross profits in 2016, according to a study by the National Automobile Dealers Association, up from the 45.4 percent the previous year.


New and used car sales accounted for 27.8 percent and 24.9 percent of overall dealership profits, respectively, in the same period.

About 44 percent of car buyers purchased a new or used-vehicle service contract, up 1 percent from 2015, NADA reported.

Dealerships wrote 259 million customer repair orders in 2016, an average of 15,501 per dealership. That was a 6.5 percent jump over the previous year.

"More and more consumers are choosing new-car dealerships for their service needs," said Patrick Manzi, NADA senior economist in an organization press release. "Express service, oil changes and nonwarranty repair orders at dealerships, on average, increased by 10.9 percent and 4.2 percent respectively, in 2016.

"This increase demonstrates that consumers value the expertise of the highly trained and factory-certified technicians employed at new-vehicle dealerships."

Still, a trip to the service department is a bit like a trip to the dentist: most customers would prefer to be somewhere else.

"It's the nature of the beast," said Steve Karr, who works at Masano Ford down Lancaster Avenue in Cumru Township. "It's always been like that."

The goal for service departments is to get those customers in and out as quickly as possible, and to make sure the repairs are done correctly the first time.

That requires skilled labor, and many worry that the pool is drying up.

Automotive service technicians and mechanics

2016 median pay: $38,470 per year/$18.50 per hour.

Typical entry-level education: Postsecondary nondegree award.

Work experience in a related occupation: None.

On-the-job training: Short-term on-the-job training.

Number of Jobs: 749,900 in 2016.

Job Outlook: 2016 to 2026, 6 percent annual growth.

Employment Change: 2016 to 2026: 47,600.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics



Mechanics wanted

"It is absolutely the case," said Sonday of Piazza Honda, which employs about 30 mechanics. "Parents don't want their kids to get their hands dirty."

"We do see it," Karr said. "Society, he said, has an unhealthy obsession with four-year college degrees, and undervalues the skilled trades.

"Over the years it has become worse," said Karr whose shop also employs about 30 mechanics.

Some lament the what they say is the flimsy work ethic of millennials.

Others, such as Henne, an accomplished master technician, wonders if the work is getting too hard for some people.

"Cars are getting a lot harder to work on," he said. "It's a lot of computer-based stuff."

Sensors, cameras and microprocessors can instantly warn drivers of impending danger and, in some cases, activate braking or steering assistance in a fraction of the normal human reaction time, Henne said.

"You've really got to keep up with the times or you're going to get left in the dust," Henne said. "I don't know if that's scaring these kids."

Technology has changed the work so much that most in the auto repair world have abandoned use of the word "mechanic," in favor of the word "technician."

"It's more than twisting wrenches," said Hoover, the service manager at Ebersole Auto, Lebanon.

"It's the typewriter versus the computer," Sonday said, comparing old cars to new ones. "That's the easiest way to put it."

Automotive computers by the numbers

Vehicles rely on computer processors and sensors to control nearly all major vehicle systems and to comply with environmental and safety requirements.


·         Are 40-to-50 percent of the total vehicle cost.

·         Average car has about 60 microprocessors.

·         Average car a decade ago had about 15 microprocessors.

·         Have more than 100 sensors sending data to microprocessors.

·         Are connected by about a mile of wiring.

·         Contain more than 10 million lines of software code, about half the lines of code that runs a Boeing 787.

Source: Center For Automotive Research

The real broomstick in the whirring spokes of auto repair is time - the very same problem plaguing construction, advanced manufacturing and other industries that rely on highly-skilled labor.

There are about 75 million baby boomers - people born between 1946 and 1964. The youngest boomers are only 12 years away from retirement age of 65. The oldest of the boomers are in their 70's and many have already traded their creepers for recliners.

Hoover lost one of his 20 mechanics to retirement over the past couple of years. Karr said he has several veterans among his crew of about 30 technicians who are inching toward retirement.

About 10,000 baby boomers per day will reach retirement age through 2030, according to the Pew Research Center, and some of them are mechanics.

They have to be replaced, but as Hoover said, "it's very difficult to find experienced guys."

Education and opportunity

"You can make a good honest living working for a dealership or even an independent repair facility fixing cars," Sonday said. "But it's hard work. It's just honest, normal, everyday hard work. If you're not prepared for that, you're going to have a difficult time."

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, half of all mechanics make more than $38,470 per year, and half make less.

Local service managers surveyed placed the range at as low as $30,000 for an entry level technician, to as high as $90,000 or even $100,000 for a master technician with years on the job, though that number seems rare.

According to information published by Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, Lancaster, more than half of the state's auto technicians earn between $43,500 and $53,800 per year.

Any lingering doubts about the value of a good vocational technical education is fading quickly said Gerald Witmer, administrative director at Reading Muhlenberg Career & Technology Center.

"The economics of the day have shifted that conversation," Witmer said.
Despite the promise of solid income, enrollment in the transportation program at that center is hovering just shy of 80 percent.

The Berks Career and Technology Center offers programs in multiple career areas for adults. Last year, it had 318 students in its ranks. Enrollment in its auto technology program, by far the most popular, has hovered at about 140 since 2010.

About half of the auto technology program graduates go on to post-secondary education, or to study at for-profit automotive schools, while half enter the workforce as entry level technicians, said Gayle Leinbach, automotive technology instructor at the school's East campus in Oley.

"It all depends on their personal goals," she said.

Leinbach said she's seen many cases of adults who left other careers to enter the automotive repair world.