Consumer education and accessibility to information has cut profit margins on many car dealerships, but has this come at the expense of quality technicians at these dealer service locations?
With less new cars being sold and populations keeping their cars longer, higher priced dealer service repairs are being offset by less qualified mechanics (technicians) at the expense of both new car buyers and owners of cars out of warranty.
Car technicians in general come at three levels, entry level, mid-level, and master technicians. According to our IJR NEWS investigation – many higher end dealers are opting for the entry level techs -as the dealer service mother company pays for warranty repairs. For example, a Lexus brought in for a service repair under manufacturer’s warranty will ultimately come at the expense of Lexus not the Lexus dealership. Because of this many dealerships are hiring unqualified technicians to fill financial profit voids created by decreased profit margins of automobiles and the slower economy which turns around less new cars.
Automotive service technicians are those who have been automotive technicians for at least two years. They hold at least one, and perhaps several, ASE certifications in different specialized areas, such as brakes, electrical/electronic systems, and engine performance. (“ASE” refers to the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, an independent organization that certifies the skills of professional technicians and also certifies the quality of automotive technology programs offered by high schools and colleges.) Automotive service technicians inspect, maintain, and repair automobiles and light trucks, such as vans and pickups. In the past, these workers were called “mechanics,” however, today’s level of technology in the modern automobile makes the term “technician” more appropriate.
In the most modern shops of automobile dealers, service technicians use electronic service equipment, such as digital multimeters (DMM), 5-gas exhaust gas analyzers, hand-held diagnostic scan tool computers, and personal computers (PC) along with PC-based diagnostic tools. These electronic service tools diagnose problems and make accurate measurements that allow precision adjustments. It is the technician’s job to perform reprogramming of the vehicle computer using the hand-held scan tool with new programming downloaded from either large computerized databases.
During routine service, technicians perform diagnostic inspections and repair or replace parts before they fail. Technicians usually follow a checklist to ensure they examine all the right components. Belts, hoses, fuses, spark plugs, brake and fuel systems, and other potentially troublesome items are among those that are closely watched. Service technicians use a variety of tools in their work, including power tools, such as pneumatic wrenches to remove bolts quickly, machine tools like lathes and grinding machines to resurface brake rotors/drums, welding and flame-cutting equipment to remove and repair exhaust systems, and jacks and hoists to lift cars and engines. They also use common hand tools like screwdrivers, pliers and wrenches to work on small parts and in hard-to-reach places.
Mid-level technicians possess advanced automotive knowledge about a manufacturer’s proprietary systems and can diagnose and repair problems efficiently with minimal supervision. Mid-level technicians can interpret and read computer and scan tool codes and data as described in the service manual. They perform factory-approved repair procedures and diagnose, remove, and replace system components.
It usually takes two to five years to acquire adequate proficiency to become a mid-level service technician, able to perform quickly the more difficult types diagnosis and repairs. Below IJR NEWS shows salary data that dealer service centers evaluate when rendering decisions on repair service.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, median hourly wage-and-salary earnings of automotive service technicians and mechanics, including commission, were $16.88 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $12.44 and $22.64 per hour. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $9.56, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $28.71 per hour. Median annual wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of service technicians were as follows:
* Local government, excluding schools: $20.07
* Automobile dealers: $19.61
* Automotive repair and maintenance: $15.26
* Gasoline stations: $15.22
* Automotive parts, accessories, and tire stores: $14.90
Required education for mid-level automotive service technician jobs, employers look for people with strong technical, communication and analytical skills who possess a depth of knowledge about the proprietary systems available on the cars and trucks sold by that dealership.
Entry Level technicians are usually straight salaried employees, however, many experienced technicians employed by automobile dealers and some independent repair shops receive a commission related to the labor cost charged to the customer. Under this system, weekly earnings depend on the amount of work completed. Employers frequently guarantee commissioned technicians a minimum weekly salary. Some employees offer health and retirement benefits, but such compensation packages are not universal and can vary widely. For this reason, car dealer services from automotive dealers have a financial incentive to place unskilled technicians on jobs that should be done by mid-level techs and master techs. For example, they can then place entry-level techs on factory warranty jobs that guarantee payment. This type of environment obviously could lead to the “technicians with the most skill and experience”, leaving dealerships as out of warranty repair come few and far in between because of profit margins dealer service centers deal with. Independent repair shops would therefore be a natural move as there is more opportunity in this economy we are in.
“Pay often is based on speed or commission, that is a recipe for disaster if you bring your car to many dealer services locations” says Larry Gaff, of Macs Auto in Costa Mesa, CA. “Every repair shop should have at least one master tech / mechanic on the floor at all times, this is rarely the case at dealerships because of the luxury of guaranteed payment by the car manufacturer. If I have a new BMW and bring it in for service and the entry level tech doesn’t fix it right, the customer can bring it back again. It doesn’t cost the dealership anymore money so why would they pay a master or mid-level tech to repair that car? Every day people come to our repair shop with complaints of repairs done numerous times that we correct with one shot. We do it right the first time because we don’t cut corners.”
Macs Auto is a highly recognized and reviewed auto dealer service repair center that has been around for over three decades, IJR NEWS appreciates their contribution to this article.
Nadia Awalia –
KBB Investigative Journalist – IJR NEWS independent journalist