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A Mechanic's Life - Tales From Under the Hood

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  • isellhondasisellhondas Issaquah WashingtonPosts: 17,367
    And when it came right down to it, these guys usually weren't very good.

    A lot of them would hide behind a huge toolbox loaded with 50,000 worth of tools.
  • MrShift@EdmundsMrShift@Edmunds Posts: 43,696
    The best sign you hired a good mechanic? COURAGE and CONFIDENCE ! :)
  • thecardoc3thecardoc3 Posts: 1,521
    I sat back and purposely avoided adding to this thread. For a thread that was intended to allow us to talk about the things we like and give us a chance to talk about the little victories that we have once in a while it's achieved only what I really expected from it.

    If you want to question warranties and how they should be handled, then that should have gotten it's own thread. FWIW, We do 12MO/12,000MILE warranty partys and labor that is good nationwide. In fourteen years of doing business we have only had to help a customer out a couple of times. Then again by using the best quality replacement parts that we can aquire, warranty failures are so infrequent that it becomes practically a non issue, but we are there for our customers in the event something strange happens.

    "isellhondas" You'd probably judge me as one of your prima donnas, but first you better put a 3 in front of how much money you think is inside my tool box, and I don't hide behind any of it.

    This career has placed many very capable people into work enviroments where management is so clueless about how a repair event should take place that they hinder the technicians abilities to be productive and efficient. Worse than that, they fail to manage to an indviduals strengths, and all the while bemoaning someones weaknesses. I'll say right here with little reservation that this is done on purpose to keep the techs questioning themselves in order to deliberately keep wages as low as they possibly can and it's gone on for decades. Then you come across a technician with the skills, talent, and drive to rebut that broken system, and your only defence is to call them a prima donna. I had a very similar conversation with the son of another local shop that I handle all of the high tech stuff for. He was complaining about their techs productivity and how much he has to watch over everyone. (FWIW he would not be a capable technician himself yet and with mentoring would be some ten years from being that technician). But here he is in management solely based on who he is and not what he has done to get there. The short side of this is that none of their techs has attended any training in years. Unless the entire shop changes direction and starts making the investment required in their people, this owners son will be exactly who you are in another twenty years. He was blaming their techs, for his, and his fathers mishandling of the business. Yep, I'm the primma donna, I showed him exactly where the major problem lies. The techs need to improve, but it's the shops responsiblity to make that happen.

    In this thread you can see comments about pricing, some positive, and some not. NOBODY on the outside knows what any shop should be charging, period.

    You cannot say what price is "fair", there are way too many variables. The shop I mentioned above has made no investement to be prepared for the technology in today's cars so they are cheaper than me in an already greatly distressed economy. We on the other hand have and continue to prepare for what-ever might roll up to the door. Most peoples ambivolus perception of fair would punish us for doing that by going to the cheaper place first.

    I've already spent too much time responding here and need to get busy. I'll pick off a few more of the errors in this thread but that's all I'll really get to do. I doubt anyone really cares about the nightmares we solve and someone is sure to try and bash us for achieving the capability that we bring to the table. Frankly, I don't think anyone is even reading this thread beyond the ones who have responded already.
  • Stever@EdmundsStever@Edmunds YooperlandPosts: 39,047
    edited June 2012
    NOBODY on the outside knows what any shop should be charging, period.

    Lots of outfits report on what overhead costs are and what the typical profit margin is for various businesses. You may have to pay for some of that info, especially the more reliable info, but I can't think of any industry where it's not available.

    One free site says a tech should be worth about $15k a month in labor and $18k a month in parts (gross) to a dealer. "Profit" on the labor can hit 70%, parts, 45%. Economies of scale, if nothing else, would whack those income numbers for an indy shop. Maybe Isell can relate those numbers to his real world experience back in the day when he managed a shop.

    No one really cares though, so long as they get a good product or service and don't feel like they've been gouged.

    Sounds like the Peter Principal is well established in your industry too.
  • MrShift@EdmundsMrShift@Edmunds Posts: 43,696
    It's interesting how much you read into people's comments that I really don't see there at all. Well, we all have a view of the world that differs, that's true.

    A "prima donna" in my opinion, is a non-performer, and a non-team player. It's the kind of person who costs more than they are worth. That's what the term means. I really don't think any truly capable technician would be branded thusly. It's not management who dislikes such a person--the rest of the line does, too.
  • thecardoc3thecardoc3 Posts: 1,521
    Lots of outfits report on what overhead costs are and what the typical profit margin is for various businesses. You may have to pay for some of that info, especially the more reliable info, but I can't think of any industry where it's not available.

    Nobody has ever come by asking us for that information. One would think they need to do that in order to actually have it.

    One free site says a tech should be worth about $15k a month in labor and $18k a month in parts (gross) to a dealer. "Profit" on the labor can hit 70%, parts, 45%. Economies of scale, if nothing else, would whack those income numbers for an indy shop. Maybe Isell can relate those numbers to his real world experience back in the day when he managed a shop.

    If I was in a shop and being fed all of the gravy work, those numbers wouldn't be difficult to reach at all. But that's not what would happen. I'd actually get a steady diet of the most difficult situations. Few shops bill that work correctly, in fact it would be fair to say only a handful actually bill it correctly, while most simply blame the technician and try and force that stuff to be done faster than is really possible. The end result has all the appearance of a technician that is expensive to the shop per hour, and un-productive on the larger scale.

    Steve, have you ever done piece work, which is what flat rate is, and had management tell you we need you to handle this problem car for us, but we cannot pay you for it because it's a comeback for the shop. "Here's some gravy work to make up the time"

    When management resorts to that they are stealing from their best technician and that ultimnately leads to bad feelings and the eventual loss of the technician. Meanwhile management turns around and blames the technician exactly as isell described, without you seeing the whole story.

    "No one really cares though, so long as they get a good product or service and don't feel like they've been gouged"

    Charge correctly for the time that is often invested in the difficult diagnostics and the consumers do feel they may have been gouged. The result is the shops work under priced, and in turn fail to pay the techs properly, invest in more schooling, and tooling and the whole race to the bottom picks up a little more momentum.

    BTW 33K a month? Gravy work again very easy to do. Try doing the really high tech stuff and you'll see why my shop averages 200K a year, gross, and it's not uncommon to be insulted for trying.
  • Stever@EdmundsStever@Edmunds YooperlandPosts: 39,047
    edited June 2012
    have you ever done piece work

    Sort of - bid an individual job, do the work and then get stiffed by the client. Happened a few times. And lots of time I've had to do way more work on a job than I could justify billing for. Kind of goes with the territory in lots of jobs, in spite of your best efforts.

    My limited experience with a great mechanic was a older shop owner three decades ago in Haines Jct. YK. My old wagon wasn't shifting higher than 2nd gear on the last leg of a long road trip. His tech told me the transmission was shot but his boss could look at it the next day. So we hit the motel next door that was also owned by this guy.

    The shop owner looked at our car that evening and slept on it. The next day he figured out that the engine compression was so low that there wasn't enough vacuum being created to shift the transmission. (Something like that - details are getting fuzzy). Anyway, he did something simple like advance the timing and we got the last 600 miles home fine.

    All that and the bill, including the motel, was less than $150. Between fiddling around and a couple of road tests, I'm sure the mechanic spent 3 hours dinking with it.
  • qbrozenqbrozen Posts: 16,916
    edited June 2012
    One free site says a tech should be worth about $15k a month in labor and $18k a month in parts (gross) to a dealer. "Profit" on the labor can hit 70%, parts, 45%.

    You realize that, taken at face value, that's $4500 gross pay to the mechanic, but that's hardly the end of it. Is that why you put profit in quotes? If that 70% really is supposed to be profit, I think that's something more like $3k pay to the mechanic, best case scenario. I think only entry-level Jiffy Lube guys make that little.

    In other words, I'm not buying those numbers. The profit has to be WAY lower than 70%.

    '13 Stang GT; '86 Benz 300E; '98 Volvo S70; '12 Leaf; '08 Town&Country

  • isellhondasisellhondas Issaquah WashingtonPosts: 17,367
    Thank you for explaining what my own defination of a "Prima Donna" would be.

    I think that poster thinks I am against him and quite the opposite is true.

    " Gravy" jobs are often given to the least capable guys in a shop while the skilled people are often given the hard to diagnose, miserable jobs that are near impossible to make money doing.

    And, the so called gravy jobs as I understand things are becoming fewer and fewer to find.

    Flat rate books get adjusted as talented people figure out ways to "beat the clock" and actually make good money. Often this requires the purchase of some expensive tools.

    There is a huge difference between being able to beat the clock by being smart and doing sloppy work and cutting corners.

    It's not easy today keeping up with the fast changing technology. I am well aware of that and I have nothing but respect for the hard working people that stick with it. A lot of good people have left the trade.
  • Stever@EdmundsStever@Edmunds YooperlandPosts: 39,047
    edited June 2012
    Gross profit could be up there. Real profit is another story.

    The mechanic may take home $3k, but there's all the withholding, any benefits, training costs, worker's comp, etc. I suspect that stuff could add $1,500 to the owner's cost of having an employee, but I've never had an employee so don't know. My own carrying costs are pretty darn high though. :shades:
  • qbrozenqbrozen Posts: 16,916
    edited June 2012
    I BELIEVE I heard once that the additional cost of an employee is 50% gross pay. I'd have to imagine that varies, though. I mean, a place that offers 401k contributions, ample PTO, and health benefits is WAY higher than those that don't.

    '13 Stang GT; '86 Benz 300E; '98 Volvo S70; '12 Leaf; '08 Town&Country

  • xwesxxwesx Fairbanks, AlaskaPosts: 8,279
    That's probably not a bad average, Q. At my organization, the gross cost is nearly double the employees' salary, depending somewhat on the employee type, and we have a pretty decent benefit package.

    A worker with no benefits will be approximately 10% more, so average it out and it is going to come in somewhere around 50%.

    --

    I have respect for all the local shops (independent) I have used for repairs. I know enough about the cars that I can talk to them about what's going on, and they are always direct and professional. There has been a time or two when the techs mess something up, like the time they forgot to tighten the lug nuts on a wheel, but we're all human. I know, accept, and can forgive that. ;)
  • thecardoc3thecardoc3 Posts: 1,521
    have you ever done piece work

    Sort of - bid an individual job, do the work and then get stiffed by the client. Happened a few times. And lots of time I've had to do way more work on a job than I could justify billing for. Kind of goes with the territory in lots of jobs, in spite of your best efforts.

    That really stinks when that happens to you when you are running your own business, but imagine being the employee and when it happens you get to bear the loss.

    a great mechanic..... older shop owner...... three decades ago ..... My old wagon wasn't shifting higher than 2nd gear..... His tech told me the transmission was shot but his boss could look at it the next day........

    Back then, straight mechanical controls were all you found. Depending on what you were driving, you may not of even had a torque convertor clutch. Now not getting out of second gear does of course suggest either the transmission governor pressure isn't raising to the level needed to shift, or the throttle valve (vacuum modulator on some) is signaling a wide throttle opening or heavy engine load and the governer pressure shouldn't be able to cause the transmission to shift. Both of which leave you in a lower gear until your going fast enough for the governer pressure to overcome TV pressure.

    The shop owner looked at our car that evening and slept on it. The next day he figured out that the engine compression was so low that there wasn't enough vacuum being created to shift the transmission. (Something like that - details are getting fuzzy). Anyway, he did something simple like advance the timing and we got the last 600 miles home fine.

    Then what was done? Was the timing chain stretching and need replaced? Did you just dump the car, simply go get another one and never did fix it?

    All that and the bill, including the motel, was less than $150. Between fiddling around and a couple of road tests, I'm sure the mechanic spent 3 hours dinking with it.

    Seriously, if I would have been working with that and not known what was wrong with that right from the first road test I could just hear the "You don't know what you're doing comments" I doubt that "repair" would have gotten me paid much more than one hour in 1980-1984 and as the employee that worked out to somewhere between $6.00 to $8.50 which was what I was making per hour back then. If I had spent three hours on it, I would have only made the one hour billed. Their logic was "We can't charge the customer for you to be learning on their car". We were litterally expected to just know what what wrong each and every time.

    Come to think of it, that perception really hasn't changed even though the cars and what it takes to diagnose and repair them has. What are the oddds if he was still in business, and working as a technician that you would still think he was great when faced with a similar problem on one of today's cars? (Be careful about assuming that he would have tried to keep up with training and equipment for the electronics on the cars today)
  • Stever@EdmundsStever@Edmunds YooperlandPosts: 39,047
    It was, iirc, an old Datsun wagon. We drove it around town for a while longer and sold it to a mechanically inclined friend who fixed it up for his kid and got a few more years out of it.

    The mechanic advanced the timing and that let the engine build enough compression to generate enough vacuum. (Like I said, memory is fuzzy - this was the last clunker I owned before buying the '82 Tercel that only stranded me once in 17 years).

    If the guy was still in business, I suspect the hotel room would still cost less than $50, but I'd hate to think what the hourly mechanic rate would be. I worked retail for a short while, so I know the flies and honey approach pretty good and haven't had many jerky mechanics. This guy did have certificates on the wall - seems like he even had something from the Canadian government.

    Reading Edmunds Answers, I still see people talking about taking their car to the shop and happening on the one guy who knows exactly what the problem is just from a brief desciption. Those are fun.
  • stickguystickguy Posts: 13,602
    the knowing an obscure answer is a benefit of the internet. Between marque specific sites, and specialist shops, some things are easy to armchair diagnose.'

    Plenty of common maladies on say an E46 3 series that if I described a symptom to roadburner, he would probably know immediately, sight unseen, what the problem is.

    2013 Acura RDX (wife's), 2007 Volvo S40 (when daughter lets me see it), 2000 Acura TL (formerly son's, now mine again), and new Jetta SE (son's first new car on his own dime!)

  • thecardoc3thecardoc3 Posts: 1,521
    The mechanic advanced the timing and that let the engine build enough compression to generate enough vacuum. (Like I said, memory is fuzzy - this was the last clunker I owned before buying the '82 Tercel that only stranded me once in 17 years).

    There is knowing, and there is everything else. I'm not really trying to pick on you here, but I'm going to challenge exactly what that paragraph states.

    Please explain compression, how an engine produces it and what issues can cause a loss of compression. Now explain ignition timing and how it is controlled. Third, explain how an engine produces vacuum. What happens to intake manifold vacuum when a gasoline engine has to overcome a greater load?

    Now the tricky part. Explain how changing the timing had an impact on the engines compression. Explain how changing the timing had an impact on the vacuum the engine was producing for a given engine load.

    Get help if you need it, finally explain how/why altering the base ignition timing allowed the transmission to shift to drive and not stay in second.

    Reading Edmunds Answers, I still see people talking about taking their car to the shop and happening on the one guy who knows exactly what the problem is just from a brief desciption. Those are fun.

    They are also the exception, and not the rule. Readers Digest ran around the country about twenty years ago doing a sting operation. They would unplug the MAF sensor and roll into a shop to see what they would do. Many of the old mechanics started trying to fix the car based solely on the description of the symptom and by when they drove it they could feel the engine starving for fuel under a load. So they replaced the fuel filter. Needless to say, they got it wrong and were portraited as crooks.

    Given more than one chance at any of these miracle fixes any of the hero's would quickly get to be zero's unless they really learn how to diagnose and repair cars.
  • isellhondasisellhondas Issaquah WashingtonPosts: 17,367
    Good people are leaving the trade and a lot of these guys will go to great lengths to talk others out of becoming auto techs.

    I don't see this situation improving and shops are having trouble finding and retaining quality people.
  • thecardoc3thecardoc3 Posts: 1,521
    I can't wait to see what happens when Shell Corporation opens the cracking plant that they are going to build because of all of the marcellis shale gas they are drilling for in this area. They will suck up all of the potential younger technicians that we have (and really there aren't that many to begin with) and create an even bigger vacuum for talent. Sadly my age is going to work against me directly benefitting, but it will make working right up to my last day be a guarantee. (Notice that does not say anything about retiring, that's not in the cards for me.)
  • MrShift@EdmundsMrShift@Edmunds Posts: 43,696
    Well that brings up the moral dilemma---when can you legitimately and fairly call a repair shop "crooked"?

    Think about the actual possibilities when a "sting" operation trumpets its success:

    1. The mechanic wasn't crooked, just incompetent. Chalk that up to poor training.

    2. The mechanic was honest but the shop owner was crooked. We've all seen this.

    3. The mechanic was neither crooked nor incompetent--he was working on a very complex problem and took his best shot. Even NASA engineers guess wrong.

    4. The mechanic was both highly competent and crooked, making him an even better thief. (I know one shop like this. He is very very clever, and oversells beautifully. He is a virtual Hollywood movie with high production values).

    I don't think 'sting' operations differentiate among all these possibilities. A "sting" is often a sucker punch, in the same way commentators make hay (and lots of money) reducing complex political issues to simple jingo-ism.
  • thecardoc3thecardoc3 Posts: 1,521
    Now add some consumer pricing pressure on top of all of that and tell me why anyone should be surprised by our difficulty with retaining the talented people that we need.

    Comparing the sting operation to a sucker punch is as accurate as anything I've ever seen. The shot gunned answers that the law of averages allows to happen to be right once in a while is simply another sucker punch that there is no answer for.
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