SEATTLE – When Mike Zebley agreed to deliver tools to Seattle-area auto shops this year, he quickly realized that what most of his customers needed weren’t so much tools as people who knew. use them.

Almost every store on Zebley’s Road was so difficult for skilled mechanics that many promised Zebley up to $ 1,000 for anyone he could recruit. Despite the incentive, however, Zebley was unable to provide a single mechanic. “Everyone I go to needs techs,” he says. “They are pretty desperate.”

Stop by any garage, car dealership, or body shop and you’ll likely hear a similar version of one of the less visible and revealing work crises.

Demand for repairs and maintenance rebounds after the pandemic. But many garages are so understaffed that they have had to delay work or send clients elsewhere – despite, in some cases, sizable signing bonuses and six-figure salaries for experienced applicants.

“I would hire two guys today,” says Charles Jung, director of Fix Auto Collision in Seattle, where understaffing means about $ 40,000 in lost business each month.

At Jakob Lorz’s recently opened garage on Rainier Avenue South, he now has enough stuff to add a mechanic, but can’t find any. “Everyone who has a job that I know in this industry, they get paid, like, top, top, top dollar,” he says.

The shortage is so severe that some stores are trying to poach the talents of their rivals. “You will have someone who has just been driving down the street and wants to speak to one of your technicians,” warns Tim Eaton, former president of the regional branch of the Automotive Service Association and owner of Hi-Line Auto Electric. at Burien, which is down three positions despite offering salaries of up to $ 100,000.

Seattle isn’t the only place short of mechanics, collision specialists and other auto technicians – the problem is national – but its problem is particularly acute. In July, job openings in the Seattle area for the broader category of vehicle and mobile equipment mechanics, which also includes truck and aircraft mechanics, nearly doubled the supply of mechanics. unemployed, according to a monthly estimate from the state’s Department of Employment Security. That’s the state’s biggest shortfall – and an ironic twist, given the Seattle area’s reputation for a highly skilled workforce.

What is driving the shortage? Some garage owners, echoing complaints from other industries, blame the federal pandemic unemployment benefit of $ 300 per week that has been added to the state’s regular unemployment benefits in response to the slow recovery in the economy. labor market after COVID-19 layoffs.

Yet while these enhanced benefits, which expired on September 4, may have contributed to the shortage, especially for entry-level workers, auto specialists were scarce long before COVID-19, according to experts at the ‘industry.

Specifically, the main factors causing this shortage – among them, Seattle’s infamous housing market – will not be addressed by simply removing a benefit.

“This is just a highlight … of what has been going on in our industry for many years,” says Eaton.

A long-standing problem: In Seattle and across the country, fewer people want to work on cars.

Even before COVID-19, enrollment was declining in auto technician programs at many community colleges and vocational schools. Many high schools no longer offer auto workshop classes and fewer students seem interested in car repairs.

One of the reasons, experts say, is that auto repair often conflicts with our changing attitudes about what counts as a ‘good’ job, especially in labor markets that are so dominated by ‘hardworking’ workers. know ”well paid.

Physically, repairing cars is “hard on your body,” says Jerry Barkley, owner of Crown Hill Automotive in Seattle.

Yet increasingly, it is also a job that requires high-level technical know-how and problem-solving skills, especially as cars are increasingly computerized. Today, a mechanic is “someone who is able to analyze data and process that information,” says Amber Avery, a former mechanic who now teaches in the automotive program at Shoreline Community College. These demands, which help explain why the industry prefers “automotive technician” to “mechanic”, will only intensify as electric drives replace internal combustion engines.

The problem, according to industry officials, is that students with aptitudes for today’s automotive technology are choosing engineering or programming jobs, which are high-level and well-paying, rather than repair. automobile, which is still widely regarded as lower status work.

“There’s still a stigma that it’s guys at a gas station in the 1950s just changing the oil when in fact they’re some of the smartest people I know,” says Paul Svenkerud, service manager at Carter Volkswagen & Subaru, which is short of at least 20 technicians at four sites in the Seattle area.

Yet despite the profession’s increasingly technical bent – and the corresponding potential for high wages – Svenkerud says, “I think a lot of parents don’t encourage their kids to go to automotive trade school.”

It is not just an urban problem. Between 2016 and 2019, enrollment in the automobile program at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake increased from 52 to 39, according to school officials.

A person’s professional status is not the only obstacle. An experienced master automotive technician or collision specialist can indeed earn up to $ 100,000 per year. But many junior technicians will earn near minimum wage, which even in Seattle means barely $ 40,000 a year.

Equally difficult, in many stores entry-level techs are still expected to have maybe $ 5,000-10,000 invested in their own tools – and be prepared to invest several thousand dollars worth of money. more as they go along.

By the time an automotive technician hits the top, “these guys are driving around with basically a hundred thousand dollars, more or less, of their own tools and equipment,” says Hi-Line’s Eaton.

This is one of the reasons why many potential technicians are turning to trades with lower entry costs and faster earnings. “In construction, if you spend $ 5,000 [on tools] you can earn $ 35 an hour, ”explains Erick Hernandez, mechanic at T-Auto Repair in Burien. As much as he enjoys working on cars, admits Hernandez, “this job is expensive”.

The tight job market has been a boon for technicians, who now have even more bargaining power. As Svenkerud sarcastically puts it, when a qualified candidate actually responds to your job posting, “they’re usually already employed… they get a big raise for staying.

But for many small mechanics, who cannot offer the same salaries as their larger counterparts, competing for talent is not always an option and they can reduce work.

But others don’t think they can turn away customers. “Honestly, it’s like throwing away money,” says Lorz, whose solution to the labor shortage is familiar to most small business owners.

“Basically, if I can’t find anyone, I can do it myself,” he shrugged. “It’s just longer hours, you know.”

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