Growing Up With Wrenches
Unlike kids of today, my childhood was long
before video games and color TV. Most of my
free time was spent climbing trees, playing in
the crick (creek, to you city folk), riding my
bike, and tinkering with anything that had a
motor. Wrenches, sockets, and screwdrivers
were just part of growing up. I would tear
apart an old mower just to see what was inside.
Most of the time it would end up in a pile of
parts. But, by the time my dad came to see what
I was doing, he would stand there in disbelief
and just shake his head. Then dive in and show
me how to put it all back together. Good times
for sure. There was no You Tube, no on-line help,
just dad and son, and I’m sure it’s the same way
my dad learned his tinkering abilities too.
These days it’s all about the computer with their programs and the internet with its billions of websites. There aren’t as many kids that I know of who spend their summer vacations building tree houses or turning an old horizontal lawn mower engine into a homemade go-kart like I used to do. Times have changed, but the need for those wrenches are just as important as it was back in my youth. However, now a lot of those early learned skills have to be developed through a trade schools or at a high school shop class. That is, if the economy hasn’t budgeted the shop class out of existence. Growing up with wrenches was just something I did. Which is probably what led me to the automotive field as a career. It’s a good living, and you get to meet a whole lot of wonderful people every day. But, as it has been for decades, there’s still a big shortage of mechanics out there. As I see it, the big problem isn’t so much a people shortage, but a shortage in “qualified” mechanics. I look at it this way. Back in the day of carburetors and vacuum modulated transmissions a lot of guys and gals didn’t go to any school to learn the trade. Most picked up bits and pieces of how things worked through on the job training. The older mechanics would teach the younger ones and so on and so on.
But, all of a sudden the average age of the “qualified” and “experienced” mechanic is well over 50 years old. Somewhere along the line less and less of the younger generations wanted to pursue a career in the automotive field. What happened? From my point of view, I see a few things that might have been the cause. First off, the computer age. Cars went from points and condensers to electronic ignition, then onto the full blown electrical nightmare we have today. The older generation of mechanics all had a similar background working with hand tools and could understand the basic principles of an automobile. But, as the industry changed to more and more electrical systems their knowledge base dwindled.
The smart guy who wanted to stay up with all of these changes did what was needed, and that’s study as much as possible. While the other guy who was still using the “learn as you go” method would just slap part after part on until they got it right, and yes, there are a lot of “guessers” still in the business today. Now, the car wasn’t as simple as it was before, and the average dad wasn’t able to tinker on his family car like their past generations could. But, the change to the computer age isn’t the only reason that caused this shortage of qualified mechanics.
Ultimately it comes down to the amount of time and effort to learn these new systems, the amount of investment one has to put into it all and most importantly their overall income. The average professional mechanic has well over $100,000.00 invested in personal hand tools, tool boxes, and testing equipment over the course of their career. But, the pay varies as much as the diagnostic fee does from shop to shop. So, maybe part of the problem for the new techs coming into the business is making the investment in the tools, and the amount of school time when the pay isn’t all that great.
So, where does all this low wage, high investment come from? The investment into tools is an easy one to figure out. But, the wage side of it is a bit more complicated. Let’s face it, it’s all about the money. But, all those shops that feel the best way to keep work in the shop is by having the lowest hourly rate is the real problem. Nearly all consumers make the general assumption that all mechanics are the same and that price is their only factor to be concerned with. So, should we lower prices to compete with the lesser skilled shops even though the investment in tools keeps increasing and the overall profit margin keeps dropping because of it all? In my opinion, right there is the real problem. Instead of shouting about a shortage of mechanics, which by “body count” their certainly isn’t a shortage, we should be talking about doing something for the consumer. By starting at the bottom with those low rate/low skill shops and pulling them up to a more qualified level of expertise. Look at the attendees of any one of the trade schools or college based courses and you’ll see that there is a turnaround in the quality of the mechanics entering the field. But, it’s nothing like growing up with wrenches or the way I started. I think there’s a bright future for the right qualified technician. It’s the tech schools and attrition of the parts swapper shops that’s going to make the changes. The tech schools allow an individual not only to learn those same skills I learned growing up with wrenches but even more importantly the skills needed and whether or not this trade is right for you.
It not going to be easy to make sense of all the information and skills that the future mechanics will need to know. They’ve got to be a whole lot more aware of so many different systems than what a few hand tools can help with. But, there’s still a place for the right person with the right kind of natural mechanical ability and those growing up with wrenches skills. They’re still out there, but some of them don’t know they have those gifted skills because they didn’t grow up around it. Then again, the trade schools have their hands full teaching the basic hand to eye coordination, as well as bringing the students up to speed with the latest greatest electronics, so someone with that natural talent will likely shine through.
Eventually, all those shops and mechanics that try to undercut their prices will fade off into the distance. Fewer parts changers and guess-until-ya-get-it shops, because the cars are getting smarter every year and the mechanic will have to do the same. Maybe, the days of growing up with wrenches is a thing of the past. Now we need more and more trade schools, conventions, seminars, and podcasts to keep upgrading our skill levels. Hopefully, in time, the trade will have the respect and salary to go along with the advanced and diverse knowledge the modern mechanic needs to have. Even if they didn’t grow up with wrenches.