When Do You Need a Master Mechanic?
Just as in the medical profession, automotive seems to be moving toward specialization. Doctors are usually trained in how the entire human body works and then choose a specialty. They need to know how the whole body works so the work they perform on one part of the body doesn’t adversely affect another part of the body. With cars it’s the same. The mechanic needs to know the whole car in order to do a proper job on just one part of it because all of the systems are interrelated. Unfortunately, unlike the human body, cars change every year and it’s next to impossible to keep up on the technology if you specialize. The mechanic needs constant experience in all areas of the car to keep current on any one area.
As an example, you really shouldn’t replace a thermostat or flush a cooling system if you have no knowledge of how the engines cooling system flows. In most cases you need thorough knowledge of the inside of the engine to know how to properly bleed the cooling system. This is extremely important in engines with aluminum heads. (Most modern engines have aluminum heads.) If the cooling system is not properly bled after servicing, hot spots from air pockets could cause serious damage to the head gasket. Damage that probably won’t show up for several thousand miles. By then the amateur flush job or thermostat replacement would seem totally unrelated to the blown head gasket. Also some engine performance technicians have trouble diagnosing driveability problems because they lack some engine mechanical knowledge. Some tire technicians have unknowingly warped brake rotors, bearing hubs and axle shafts using an impact wrench to tighten lug nuts. Some transmission specialists have been known to mistake ignition trouble for transmission problems. Some brake specialists have a problem when it comes to high tech electronics. (Why do you think they became brake specialists?) Now almost every car rolling off the assembly line has a computer controlled electronic anti-lock brake system.
Your car is probably the most complicated, high-tech piece of equipment you will ever own. They are getting more complicated every year. So far we’ve done a very good job, as an industry, keeping up with the demand for repairs. Just compare us to any other industry and you’ll agree. For instance, when was the last time you took your VCR in for a cleaning and got “while you wait” service? Have you ever managed to get same day service for a minor repair on your home? Or even a toaster? How about labor rates? In auto repair we’re still mostly in the $80’s and $90’s per hour. Ask an appliance repair shop what their labor rate is. How about copier or computer repair shops? Well, in calling around for these services myself, I have a hard time finding any of them under $120 per hour. And most of them charge a minimum fee whether they fix it or not (usually one hour labor minimum). Talk to these repair people and you’ll find most of them proud to say they had weeks of training and a couple hundred dollars worth of tools and equipment. Compare that to an auto technician who’s had 2 to 3 years of school, 5 years of apprenticeship and takes an average of 3 weeks off per year for updated technical training. The average auto technician will have also spent an average of $35,000 on hand tools and the average shop has an additional $300,000 worth of equipment.
More and more I see great master technicians who live the job and keep up on the new technology leave the field for higher paying jobs doing other types of work. The biggest problem, as I see it, is the specialists are getting most of the good jobs (like brake work, water pumps and other maintenance work) and leaving the really good technicians with the low profit jobs (like complicated diagnostic work and problem cars that the specialists can’t figure out). What this has resulted in is a SEVERE shortage of QUALIFIED and CERTIFIED MASTER automobile technicians. Right now we have a 60,000 technician shortage nation wide and it’s growing fast. What will you do years from now when you need a real expert to diagnose a problem and the best you can do is a chain store salesman and a crew with hardly any experience?
A recent Consumer Reports article showed that consumers were much happier with independent shops that did not specialize. We were compared to chain stores, specialty shops and new car dealerships for price and quality. Across the board dealerships, specialty shops and chain stores scored lower in customer satisfaction and price (we keep copies of the articles in our waiting room for customers to read). The biggest reason for going to the chain stores in the first place seems to be effective advertising tactics and low-ball price quotes (though they advertised lower prices than independent shops, final invoices were shown to be higher than the independent shops on average). New car dealers seemed to leave customers the least satisfied. Consumer Reports bottom line advice? Think independent. Especially when having brake, exhaust or transmission work done.
You vote with your wallet and every vote counts. If the specialists and chain stores continue to get all of the important votes then Master Technicians will eventually be a thing of the past. Considering independent repair shops do better work for less money and leave their customers more satisfied, can a specialist really meet your needs?