Those who are looking to get their cars fixed might have to wait a few days — even weeks — before they can nail down an appointment at their neighborhood auto shop.
A shortage of mechanics is the reason. Simply put, there just aren’t enough of them to do all of the work.
“I’ve been looking for a mechanic for over five months,” said Tony Lakkis, who has owned Sudbury Mobil at 432 Boston Post Road (Rte. 20) for 32 years. He employs one mechanic, but needs another.
Meanwhile, work is piling up. And Lakkis isn’t alone.
At Wally & Son Auto at 46 Water St. in Framingham, owner Elias Antonios said “everyone is going through this, finding mechanics.”
The industry outlook isn’t rosy. Nationally, the number of mechanics and auto technicians is expected to decline by 4% between 2019 and 2029, from 756,600 to 728,800, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Why the shortage?
David Protano, dean of automotive technology at MassBay Community College, said people used to tinker with cars in their front yards. Young people, even kids, used to watch the tinkering, and some thought of being a mechanic one day.
But that happens a lot less now, as society has moved to other pursuits.
“Less people are interested (in becoming a mechanic) at a young age,” Protano said.
Framingham startup:New e-bike designed to assist police departments
Another reason for the shortage is many students and parents think college — not the trades — is the path to a solid career, said Tony McIntosh, director of career and technical education at the Joseph Keefe Technical High School in Framingham.
“I think society prioritizes a bachelor’s degree as the entry point to the workforce,” he said.
Enrollment in automotive programs at Keefe has been steady — averaging about 15 students per grade.
It’s the same story at MassBay.
In 2016, the community college had 118 students in its automotive programs. Three years later, in 2019, it was 125. Enrollment dipped to 90 students in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, when MassBay put public safety measures in place, including a cap on enrollment for social distancing.
So if enrollment in technical schools and community colleges isn’t declining, why the shortage of mechanics?
Experts point to several possible reasons. One could be an industry practice that new hires must come in with their own tools, and that can be cost prohibitive.
John Paul, spokesman at AAA Northeast, bought his own tools many years ago for his first job as a mechanic. It was an expensive investment, and Paul said the industry has always been that way, forcing newly minted grads to shell out big bucks for their own tools. A new, empty tool box can cost as much as $6,000, Paul said.
Another issue is the ever-changing pace of car technology — especially with the increasing number of hybrid and electric cars in production.
“Staying up to date, that can be hard,” Paul said.
Existing mechanics growing older is another factor. Fixing cars can be back-breaking work, and it doesn’t get any easier as one ages.
“I need to retire, I’m getting old,” said Lakkis, 59. He said he’ll hang on for another couple of years, when his son is ready to take over the business.
What is the solution?
“More awareness,” said Protano of MassBay, an idea seconded by McIntosh at Keefe Tech.
Awareness means vocational high schools, colleges, independent shop owners and dealerships with service departments all working together to inform students of career possibilities.
Specifically, sending the message that one can make a decent living fixing cars.
Nationally, the median pay for automotive service technicians and mechanics in 2020 was $44,050, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
More in education:Lawmakers, others want sweeping $3B investment in voc-tech schools
But it you’re well trained and do quality work, Paul, of AAA Northeast, said an annual salary can climb into the six figures.
Another solution to the shortage, Paul said, is to give new mechanics time to develop skills. Some shop owners can be impatient, want to get work done quickly, and feel they don’t have time to train new hires.
Advocates also need to drive home the point that being a mechanic is no longer about being covered in grease while working under the hood. In the old days, Paul said there was a term for that — “grease monkey.”
“That’s not the case at all,” he said, as today’s mechanics are professionally trained to perform high-tech repairs.
If the shortage persists, a troubling combination could be in store for customers — even longer wait times to get appointments and eye-popping repair bills.
“Less people doing the same number of repairs, the cost will probably skyrocket,” said McIntosh.
We could also see the extinction of smaller, independent repair shops, McIntosh said, because they can’t keep up with changing technology and higher equipment costs. As a result, consumers will be forced to go to dealerships and larger independent shops, where bills are heftier.
McIntosh did express hope, however.
As automotive technology becomes more advanced, so will training in areas like computers, and there will be demand for mechanics who can get the job done.
Leaving the mechanic business
Antonios, the Framingham shop owner, sounded somber when he said many young mechanics lack the technical knowledge to fix today’s electric and hybrid cars.
And because of the mechanic shortage, and the high costs of tools and equipment, Antonios, who is only 36, said a majority of the shop owners he knows are ready to get out of the business.
As for Lakkis, he took a seat in the enclosed area of his Sudbury shop next to the repair bays. He said he was tired, then made one parting request.
“If you find a mechanic, let me know about him,” Lakkis said.
Henry Schwan is a multimedia journalist for the Daily News. Follow Henry on Twitter @henrymetrowest. He can be reached at [email protected] or 508-626-3964.