The people at your dealership: The techs (updated, part 1)
Have you ever wondered what goes on at a dealership, and who all those people are?
Let’s start with the technicians (or mechanics). They’re the guys who actually work on your car, and they are usually paid “book rates” when working on warranty items—and, depending on the dealership, anything else. Book rate means that if the company thinks a brake job takes 1.5 hours, they get 1.5 hours of time for it—at $40 per hour, $60. If the job takes three hours, they get $60. If the job takes five minutes, they get $60.
Obviously, fortune favors the fastest workers, who are often also the best—but not always. To get decent wages, some may skip important steps, causing problems later. For the most part, though, speed comes from experience and intelligence; people may work out better ways to do things. I once saw a guy replace a timing belt in one quarter the time the book said it would take, while adding an extra step or two so it would last longer.
The problem for these guys is that, in most dealerships, they’re expected to help out the newer or less competent people as well. They also get the most challenging jobs, as you’d expect. Dealers could give them higher compensation; some do, many don’t.
The other problem is that they tend to buy more tools, which they pay for out of their own pocket, to do the more complex jobs. The tools are expensive, and it’s not unusual for techs to own tens of thousands of dollars worth of tools; in at least one state, there’s an annual tax on them too.
In the end, some dealerships abuse their best techs and they end up making very little more than the slow, lazy, or not-so-talented ones. These are the techs who are most likely to go somewhere else, or quit the field entirely. It’s not unusual for excellent technicians to find another line of work, or to start their own repair shop if they can, and work for someone else if they can’t.
Life is hard for a tech at a high-pressure dealership. The work is often physically challenging, and small injuries are not uncommon. A mechanic with a conscience or reasonable amount of empathy will likely feel bad for many of the owners; a small mistake when servicing a transmission can cost the car owner thousands of dollars. On the one hand they are pressured to finish the job quickly, on the other they are pressured to be thorough and make no mistakes. At the same time, they have to work around some of the rules. Some techs take materials from unnecessary maintenance on one car and hoard them, so they can use them on another car without having to charge the customer.
Diagnostic time is always an issue. Certain problems are very hard to figure out, and a conscientious mechanic may need extra time to make sure a problem is the big expensive one and not the less-common cheap one (or the other way around). Domestic automakers tend not to pay for diagnostic time, or to allow so little that they might as well not bother. Some luxury automakers are more generous.
Noise issues are a major headache; many noises are sporadic and can take a long time to figure out, which doesn’t help. Either the mechanic or the dealer is paying for that time; the automaker probably is not, though it’s usually their fault.
While automakers have been trying in recent years to “train and retain” technicians, the job is often made very hard by the dealership managers, who often could be more enlightened and empathetic, and by the harsh realities of economics. Dealership overhead is quite high, and while most dealers now charge customers well over $100 per hour for the techs, their payment from dealers for warranty work is usually far less; they can lose money on warranty work and that has to be made up either in sales overhead or in parts and service.
The need to compensate for losing money on warranty work (or just breaking even) leads dealers to push unnecessary maintenance, such as the almost universal signs suggesting oil changes around three times as often as needed (3 months or 3,000 miles by dealer recommendation, one year or 8,000 or so miles by some factory rules). Thus, customers are faced with demands for changing “100,000 mile spark plugs” every year or two, flushing ten-year coolant every three years, and spraying throttle body cleaner even though detergent gasoline is the only kind you can buy (so throttle body cleaning is rarely, if ever, needed).
One former mechanic added that some dealerships now have a team approach, where each team has people with different levels of experience. It’s a good way to get newer people up to speed, but it’s rough on the older techs; the commission is split between them. He wrote that if he spent his day helping younger techs who think they know it all, he’d expect to get better pay, but it doesn’t work that way.
Our next article: the service advisors, the guys who talk to both customers and techs and have to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong.
Clark Westfield grew up fixing up and driving past-their-prime American cars, including various GM and Mopar V8s. He has ghostwritten auto news for the last few years, and lives in Farmingdale, New York.