Making Mechanics Cool Again

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As many of you know, I grew up in a small independent shop in Wisconsin. My Dad started a shop in the tiny town back in 1992. I was raised and spent every waking hour that I could inside "the shop". I was obsessed with cars, and maybe even more, the shop talk that came along with it. You see, in the early days it wasn't all that uncommon for my Dad's buddies to stop in and give each other hell. Most all of them either worked on cars, farms or had their own projects going on at home. At times, it felt more like barber shop talk than anything that was actually productive but when it came down to it, they still got stuff done. It was a thrill for me to be a part of these conversations from such a young age, even if some of the language wasn't so age appropriate for me.

To say that I loved this period of my life would be an understatement. I used to have the Mac Tools guy route down to ensure I didn't miss a visit on the tool truck. I had to be the worst customer that he could have had as I asked a bunch of questions and rarely spent any money. As a ten year old, you don't have much for disposable income to spend on a $100 ratchet. The tool guys were all amazing to me, even when they didn't have to be. Same went for the folks at the local parts store that we visited each day. I genuinely loved being around the business and talking shop, until I didn't.

A lot has changed in shops since I was a kid. The service repair business has truly made the turn into a full fledged money making business to which small talk isn't as appreciated as it once was. Labor rates and wages have multiplied since my early days. More money spent by shops and customers results in more pressure being put on shops and Techs. When that shift to becoming a true business took place, the need to account for every minute spent in the shop quickly followed. Heck, even the name of the job title has changed from Mechanic to Technician as the position has evolved.

Evolution certainly isn't a bad thing and I'll be the first person to say that I've led the way in shooting for a perception change for blue collar industries but, in hindsight, I'm not sure that's the best idea for those actually doing the work. Part of what made being a Tech or a Mechanic a desirable position in the past was the lifestyle. In past decades, it felt like you worked on cars, trucks or equipment because you got to do what you wanted to do and it paid enough to support you and your family. I'm not sure that's still the case and I really don't blame the Techs for that.

To me, this is the biggest change that we've seen in our industry. We, as an industry, have forced this issue and we kind of had to because service revenue is highly profitable! Because of how profitable a service department is, independent repair shop and dealership owners have been forced to recognize how important it is to their bottom line profitability. In much the same way, Techs have also been forced to view themselves as a business as expectations of them have changed.

There is more pressure on a Technician today than ever before. Some of this is driven by performance based pay (I'm looking at you, flat rate), some of it by how advanced the electrical systems they are working on have gotten. It takes a higher skill level to diagnose now and there is a lot more money on the line. Try explaining a fried controller that was unintentionally donated to diagnose an electrical issue. In many cases, we screw over our advanced diagnostic Techs by sticking them in a flat rate system that rewards parts changers far more than true diagnosticians. How dare you take 5 hours to diagnose an intermittent wire rub! Lest we forget the investment of tools that a Technician has.

We could go on and on, and this certainly isn't the first article to cover this. It's no wonder that Techs and Mechanics are starting to look at themselves as their own business, even if they happen to be working in somebody else's shop. They are far more invested in their careers than almost any other profession that I can recall. And currently, they hold about as much leverage as any other professional.

So, why do I bring this up? What's the point in regurgitating a topic that has a seemingly never-ending cycle. I mean, we're not going back to the old days at my Dad's shop anytime soon!

The primary reason I bring this up is because I miss old school Mechanics and the lifestyle that came along with it. Growing up, these were the guys I idolized. It had nothing to do with how much money they made or what other peoples opinions of them were. They were who they were and I absolutely loved it. Most of them chewed tobacco or smoked. They were rarely clean and they certainly weren't driving the nicest vehicles in the world.

It didn't matter. These guys were giants to me. They were the definition of hard workers that didn't complain. They didn't brag about their work ether, they just worked their asses off.  All they knew was that they loved what they did and were good at fixing problems. The pay and benefits were secondary to being able to work with their buddies and talking shop.

This all changed when it became a profit center for business. It could very well just be me but I don't see the camaraderie as much now. Is it out there? Sure…but Techs are being forced to view themselves as their own entity, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. One of the primary issues that I have is the amount of discourse you read on social media. Lots of people that don't seem to like their line of work all that much. Of course, the loudest people tend to be the unsatisfied folks airing out their grievances on social media to tell others what's on their mind but they tend to be the ones that get the most attention.

This writing isn't meant to be an open discussion for pay rate or for figuring out the skills gap but more just remembering how much I miss those times. As we move forward, I know that we'll never be able to revisit the "good ole days" but I do think it's important to give a voice to those that are truly putting pride and effort into their work. Too often, we only hear people complaining about things that they feel wronged on but I miss the embrace of the lifestyle I remember from growing up.

Because of this, we're starting a marketing campaign called "Make Mechanics Cool Again". It's kind of a corny phrase but it's more focused around embracing the blue collar lifestyle rather than trying to change it. Being blue collar doesn't mean we can't be professional. Being blue collar doesn't mean we're not smart. Quite the opposite. Being blue collar means working our asses off, taking pride in our work and supporting others in our industry…even if that means giving them a hard time when they deserve it.

While I no longer spend each day in a shop, I still reminisce about the guys that paved the way for us to get to this point. I appreciate everything they did for us. I think about the old guy who was a master at rebuilding carburetors or the guy that would live a 350 block up with his bare hands, and then complain about how much his back hurt. These guys are the reason I'm still in the industry today. They taught me to work hard and have pride.

So, the next time you're frustrated with something happening in your shop or the industry in general, please take a second to think about those that came before us. It wasn't always about money. Sure, the business has evolved to the point that shop owners and Techs have to think about their own bottom lines. We have to and there is nothing wrong with that. Just don't tell me that there is no value in old school values and taking pride in a job well done because we talk with all kinds of people that are still doing this on a daily basis. Their voices aren't as loud as the ones that are discontent but they're the best we got and they remind me of a time that I miss.

In short, I want to "Make Mechanics Cool Again".

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