When Mike Zebley took a job delivering tools to Seattle-area car shops this year, he quickly learned that what most of his customers needed wasn’t tools so much as people who knew how to use them.
Nearly every shop on Zebley’s route was so hard-up for skilled mechanics that many promised Zebley up to $1,000 for anyone he could recruit. Despite the incentive, however, Zebley hasn’t been able to deliver a single mechanic. “Everybody that I go to needs techs,” he says. “They’re pretty desperate.”
Stop by any Seattle-area garage, car dealership, or body shop and you’ll likely hear a similar take on one of the region’s less visible and more revealing labor crunches.
Demand for repairs and maintenance is rebounding from the pandemic. But many garages are so short-staffed they’ve had to delay work or send customers elsewhere — despite, in some cases, offering hefty signing bonuses and six-figure salaries for experienced candidates.
“I would hire two guys today,” says Charles Jung, manager at Fix Auto Collision in Seattle, where lack of staff means about $40,000 in forgone business every month.
At Jakob Lorz’s recently opened garage on Rainier Avenue South, he now has enough business to add a mechanic, but can’t find any. “Everyone that has a job that I know in this industry, they’re getting paid, like, top, top, top dollar,” he says.
The shortage is so severe that some shops are trying to poach rivals’ talent. “You’ll get someone who just drives in off the street and wants to talk to one of your technicians,” warns Tim Eaton, past president of the Automotive Service Association’s regional affiliate and owner of Hi-Line Auto Electric in Burien, which is down three positions, despite offering salaries of up to $100,000.
Seattle isn’t the only place short on mechanics, collision specialists and other automotive technicians — the problem is national — but it’s especially acute here. As of July, Seattle-area job postings for the broader category of vehicle and mobile equipment mechanics, which also includes truck and aircraft mechanics, was nearly double the supply of unemployed mechanics, according to a monthly estimate by the state Employment Security Department. That’s the biggest shortfall in the state — and an ironic twist, given the Seattle area’s reputation for a highly skilled workforce.
What’s driving the shortage? Some garage owners, echoing complaints in other industries, blame the $300-a-week federal pandemic unemployment benefit that was added to regular state jobless benefits in response to the job market’s sluggish recovery from COVID-19-related layoffs.
Yet while those enhanced benefits, which expired Sept. 4, may have contributed to the shortage, especially for entry-level workers, automotive specialists were scarce long before COVID-19, industry experts say.
More to the point, the larger factors driving that shortage — among them, Seattle’s infamously expensive housing market — won’t be fixed simply by taking away a benefit.
“This is just a culmination … of what’s been happening within our industry for many years,” says Eaton.
One longstanding problem: In Seattle and across the country, fewer people want to work on cars.
Even before COVID-19, enrollment was slipping in automotive technician programs at many community colleges and vocational schools. Many high schools no longer offer automotive shop classes and fewer students seem interested in fixing cars.
One reason, experts say, is that automotive repair often clashes with our evolving attitudes about what counts as a “good” job, especially in labor markets, such as Seattle’s, that are so dominated by well-paid “knowledge” workers.
Physically, fixing cars is “is hard on your body,” says Jerry Barkley, owner of Crown Hill Automotive in Seattle.
Yet increasingly, it’s also a job that demands high-level technical know-how and problem-solving skills, especially as cars have become more computerized. These days, a mechanic is “somebody who is able to analyze data and process that information,” says Amber Avery, a former mechanic who now teaches in Shoreline Community College’s automotive program. Those demands, which help explain why the industry prefers “automotive technician” to “mechanic,” will only intensify as electric drives replace internal combustion engines.
The problem, industry officials say, is that students with the aptitude for today’s automotive technology choose engineering or programming jobs, which are high-status and well-paid, over automotive repair, which is still widely seen as a lower-status job.
“There’s still a stigma that these are guys back in a gas station in the 1950s that are just changing oil, when in fact, it’s some of the smartest people I know,” says Paul Svenkerud, service director at Carter Volkswagen & Subaru, which is short at least 20 technicians across four Seattle-area locations.
Yet despite the profession’s increasingly technical bent — and corresponding potential for high salaries — Svenkerud says, “I think a lot of parents are not encouraging their kids to go to an automotive trade school.”
That’s not just an urban problem. Between 2016 and 2019, enrollment in the automotive program at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake fell from 52 to 39, according to school officials.
A person’s job status isn’t the only barrier. An experienced master automotive technician or collision specialist can indeed earn upward of $100,000 a year. But many entry-level techs will make close to the minimum wage, which even in Seattle means barely $40,000 a year.
As challenging, at many shops, entry-level techs are still expected to have perhaps $5,000 to $10,000 invested in their own tools — and to be willing to invest many thousands of dollars more as they advance.
By the time an automotive tech reaches the top level, “these guys are rolling around with essentially one hundred grand, plus or minus, of their own tools and equipment,” says Hi-Line’s Eaton.
That’s one reason many would-be techs switch to trades with lower entry costs and faster payoffs. “In construction, if you spend $5,000 [on tools] you can make $35 an hour,” says Erick Hernandez, a mechanic at T-Auto Repair in Burien. As much as he loves working on cars, Hernandez acknowledges, “this job is expensive.”
The Seattle Squeeze
Employers and educators are working to lower these cost barriers, including with tool discounts for vocational students and tool stipends at some shops.
Industry officials and educators are also ramping up recruitment efforts by, among other things, emphasizing a career with high job security and a long-term financial incentive. “You pay your dues in the beginning and you reap the rewards at the end,” says Gary Fantozzi, an automotive industry veteran who runs Shoreline Community College’s automotive program.
But that logic is a harder sell in an ultraexpensive place like Seattle. As housing prices have soared, even a midlevel technician has “got to live in Marysville and then you have a two-hour commute,” says Mike Peters, owner of Fleury’s Body Shop in Seattle, who recently lost a mechanic because of high housing costs.
That’s also the story for Zebley, the tool delivery driver, who was working his way up as a mechanic but switched careers so he and his young family could afford to stay in the area. “I needed money now instead of 10 years from now,” Zebley says.
Those sorts of concerns may help explain why, even before the pandemic, in 2019, King County actually had 152 fewer automotive technicians, or nearly 7%, than it did in 2001, even though the population has grown 28% over that period.
Battle for talent
Some industry officials and educators think new recruitment initiatives could ultimately broaden the profession’s appeal and attract more students. The tiny number of women technicians — in 2020, Shoreline Community College had just three female students out of more than 100 students, Avery says — is an obvious place to start.
But those initiatives will take years, and in the near term, the mechanic shortage is expected to worsen as the profession, which now has a disproportionately large share of older workers, starts seeing more retirements.
That’s going to mean more delays for customers. Svenkerud reckons that the shortage has reduced his Subaru repair volume by 20% and resulted in customers having to wait two to three weeks.
It’s also certain to spur fiercer competition for talent. That probably means offers of even higher wages and other enticements (and higher prices for customers). It also means even more energetic attempts to poach staff from other shops.
Andrew Beals, a tech at JE Wheels Tires & Automotive on 15th Avenue Northwest in Ballard, says he has been repeatedly approached by other garages with tempting offers. Last week, the 22-year-old accepted a new job for $3 more an hour, health benefits, and the potential for a performance bonus, as well as an easier commute. “It was too good to pass up,” says Beals, who reckons he’s already invested more than $40,000 in tools alone.
The tight labor market has been a boon for technicians, who now have even more bargaining leverage. As Svenkerud wryly puts it, when a qualified candidate actually responds to your job posting, “they’re usually already employed … and all you end up doing is renegotiating their rate of pay at their current job because once they go to give notice, they get a big raise to stay.”
But for many smaller garage owners, who can’t offer the same wages as their larger counterparts, competing for talent isn’t always an option and they might curtail work.
But others don’t feel they can turn down customers. “Honestly that’s like throwing away money,” says Lorz, whose solution to the labor crunch shortage is one that is familiar to most small business owners.
“Basically, if I can’t find anybody, I could do it myself,” he says, shrugging. “It’s just longer hours, you know.”