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It’s no secret the collision repair industry is suffering from a technician shortage. What’s maybe not quite as well-known is that some of the industry’s current techs are suffering, too.
According to the I-CAR Education Foundation, the collision repair industry currently employs about 210,000 technicians and, of those 210,000, about 20,000 of them left the industry in the last 12 months. Although it’s a staggering figure, it wouldn’t be so bad if other qualified techs were tripping over each other to get hired in.
Unfortunately, it appears they’re only tripping over each other to get out.
Slightly less than 5,000 entry-level technicians were hired from vo-tech schools, leaving about 15,000 people to be hired in from outside the industry (47 percent) or from the non-collision auto-related industry (26 percent).
What does this mean? It means that 73 percent of entry-level people coming into the industry are undergoing on-the-job training instead of vocational school training.
But, according to some, this isn’t a bad thing; some shop owners say they prefer someone with no formal training because they can mold that person to fit the shop and don’t have to break any bad habits. Says one technician: "I think shops prefer ‘newbies’ to journeymen, especially if the shop already has journeymen on staff. Less to pay. [Plus], the older [guys] are getting burned out and gripe too much, think shop owners. New guys try to please their masters."
But not all shop owners prefer to hire newbies (people with no industry experience). Sometimes they’re forced to, they say, but they don’t like it. And then there are others who refuse to hire anyone if they can’t hire an experienced tech. Says one such shop owner, "I haven’t hired anyone new because finding qualified, ambitious technicians is almost impossible."
Because of the technician shortage, some say it’s never been a better time to be a trained tech — or for young people to choose collision repair as a career. Why? Because if you’re skilled, you won’t have a problem finding a job or making good money. Says one shop owner: "Journeymen in our area are making more money now than ever before because they’re in such high demand. You can’t find them. And when you do, you pay to keep them."
On the other hand, some say it’s never been a worse time to be a tech in the industry — which is why so many are getting out each year. Many techs say they’re making less now than five years ago, and many shop owners agree — but say they just can’t afford to pay their techs any more money because insurers, through direct-repair programs, continue to squeeze shop profits by cutting labor rates and refusing to pay for certain procedures. Says one technician, "We’re all doing more work and procedures this year for less money than last year, and next year we’ll be asked — told — to do more than this year."
What’s even more discouraging than this tech’s take on the industry is this: The technician shortage and the industry’s low recruitment numbers can be traced, in part, to the fact that careers in the collision repair industry aren’t promoted or encouraged by many high school counselors — not to mention that students and their parents often view these careers as undesirable and low paying. Unfortunately, it appears that many of the industry’s current technicians agree with them.
Does this mean it’s not a good time to be a collision repair tech?
It depends — for one, on what area of the country you’re in, on which shop you work for, on the policies of local insurers, etc. It’s good from the aspect that more shop owners are providing benefits than ever before; according to our Industry Profile, 79.3 percent of shop owners now offer employee benefits. But, as one shop owner pointed out, it’s difficult to get technicians excited about benefits when their salaries continue to stagnate — or, even worse, decrease — with each passing year, while their workload continues to increase.
What’s he saying? That benefits do not a salary make.
So what are collision techs making these days? According to our respondents, on average, a journeyman makes $36,878 per year, with some respondents paying journeymen as little as $15,000 per year and others as much as $70,000.
About 45 percent of techs are paid an hourly wage, 11.1 percent a salary plus commission, 14.3 percent an hourly wage and commission, 18 percent a percentage of the shop’s labor rate, 10.6 percent a salary, 23.8 percent a flat rate (percentage of billed labor) and 7.9 percent other methods. Says one shop owner: "My shop has been slow this year, so my techs’ income has dropped because they’re paid a flat rate. Direct-repair programs don’t help. They discount labor and aren’t willing to pay for all aspects of a repair. So, if we want to produce quality repair work, my techs end up doing stuff for free."
"How much longer can technicians be squeezed and still provide high-quality repairs? And how much tighter can shop owners be squeezed and still retain qualified techs?" asks another shop owner, adding that as frustrating as it is to be a tech right now, it’s even more frustrating being a shop owner.
Writer Georgina Kajganic is editor of BodyShop Business.