I had the pleasure of throwing back a few cold ones with some mechanics from the Bettendorf Trucking Company a few weeks ago. Amidst the merrymaking, I heard that the wrenching business is not what it used to be and that hiring and keeping experienced workers has become increasingly challenging over the past decade. While there was an aspect of “kids these days,” much of the change seemed to revolve around advancing technology.
After hearing similar claims about the mechanic trade here in Corvallis, I decided to ask local business owner Gary Mahana for his take. Mahana has operated Gary’s Automotive Repair on 2nd Street for 19 years, although he has been a practitioner of automotive rejuvenation for over 40.
Mahana currently has a good crew—three technicians and a custodian—but he has seen 20 to 25 employees come and go over years. His father, who was also a mechanic, told him stories from back in the day about how he hired 27 mechanics in one month.
“You can’t do that [anymore],” said Mahana. “I am lucky to get maybe one to come out with a resume every four or five months.”
According to my Bettendorf buddies, even though Oregon has a number of good automotive programs, graduates get snatched up by big companies and dealerships in Portland. However, Mahana believes this is true anywhere.
“I word it a little differently, I say the pond is awful shallow,” said Mahana. “What I see a lot of, is kids seem to follow their parents. If Dad is a mechanic, the kid goes on to be a mechanic and Dad kind of schools them—that gets them going.”
Mahana explained that often parents show up asking him to hire their kid who really likes fixing his bicycle. However, as a rule, at Gary’s someone can only work on something that they can actually work on.
“What I normally say to them is, ‘Well, he would be working on your car,’ and that puts things in perspective,” explained Mahana. “When I hire someone and they work on a car, my name is behind it. It’s gotta be good.”
Mahana framed it like this: “It is hard to get talent. Are you getting talent you can teach and is going to stay with you? [Or] are you getting a talent that’s using you as a stepping stone to go someplace better?”
Often enough, employees that have worked at Gary’s for a year or less leave for a job that pays $2 per hour more. Mahana tells them they are feel free to leave, but don’t expect a rehire because training someone only to have them leave is a loss on an investment.
Because Gary’s is a small business, it can easily go under if Mahana himself gets a bad reputation. “I am very picky of who I bring in. They have to have my values, they have got to have my train of thought,” he said.
A year and a half ago, Mahana’s most recent hire, Denver, had little experience but has worked hard and now “he’s actually a very good pick.”
When I spoke to Denver, I was surprised to hear that before Gary’s, he had worked at Power Auto Center in Corvallis for five to six years, had worked at Capital in Salem prior, and was in college before that… sounded like a good deal of experience, but I am no mechanic.
Why does Denver do it? “It is neat to see something that doesn’t come in running, spend a few hours on it, put some new parts on, send it out the door, and see a smile on someone’s face when they drive down the street in a car that actually works.”
“We are able to communicate with each other and help each other out here,” he said. “Knowledge comes with experience and the more experience we have together, the better we can get the job done.”
“There is not a lot of talent floating around, so you do a lot to try to get them to stay with you if you’ve got a good guy,” said Mahana. “Like I said, the pond is pretty shallow.”
But if big companies in Portland gobbling up the lion’s share of Oregon’s automotive graduates is nothing new, why is the pond so shallow?
Rise of Technology
Reflecting on over 40 years of auto work, Mahana told me a story about carburetors. Fuel injected motors were invented in the late 1950s, started becoming standard by the mid-70s, and by 1990 electronic fuel injection was ubiquitous.
“I know guys who said, ‘I ain’t learning this, I am going to retire pretty soon.’ They were gone within a couple of years, that’s how fast the technology advanced—suddenly there were no carburetors,” said Mahana.
The 90s also saw computer technology becoming ever more available to the common person. Soon people were shipping their children off to computer school—and steering them away from working with their hands.
As Mahana put it, “There was a big push away from mechanics because it was considered not a worthy profession, everybody wanted to get into computers.”
Though learning new technology can add challenges, Mahana believes that it does not matter if you are young or old; whether you make it or break it all comes down to how well you can adapt to changes in technology.
“As soon as you decide you are not going to learn something, you cut yourself off. You hurt yourself,” explained Mahana. “You have to keep up with technology.”
Mahana just invested $12,000 in a new computer scanner to stay on top of things. Despite having to learn how to use it, Mahana again reminds us that “If you fall behind, you can’t afford to keep up. So I’ll keep this one upgraded as much as I can and try to move on to the next newest thing.”
But until that next newest thing, Mahana is part of a program called TechNet which offers classes on a variety of topics.
“That’s one of the ways guys keep up,” said Mahana. “Everybody in my shop can go, it’s not mandatory but they want to do it so they can keep up with what’s going on.”
However, the Bettendorf guys were convinced that they just don’t make ‘em like they used to. The younger folks, I mean.
Mahana reluctantly admits to a similar observation. “The biggest problem I see is—I hate to be beating the drum like everyone else—is a lot of the generation coming in. A lot of people do not realize the work that is involved to get where you need to get.”
Between busted knuckles, burns, and the occasional falling wrench, mechanic work can be hard. “But you can make it a very good profession, it’s a good trade. There is always going to be cars, and if they go to hovercrafts, than mechanics will just follow them right into repairing those.”
Be a Mechanic
Mahana likes Mike Rowe, the Dirty Jobs guy—do check out his blog, podcast, and the MikeRoweFoundation, pretty interesting stuff. If you don’t know, Rowe is a huge supporter of trade schools and hands-on career options. As it turns out, so is Mahana.
“Because that is where you make a living, that is where you can plan for roots and you know, 20 years from now you’re doing good.”
Despite the doom and gloom about the mechanic industry, it is a growing industry both in Oregon and most of the US. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average Oregonian mechanic makes around $40,000, while experienced individuals in the right location can earn over $60,000. The ASE Certification Training Headquarters website estimates there to be around 120 mechanics in the Corvallis area, while the Bureau estimates that just under 7,000 mechanic jobs exist in Oregon.
The wrenching business may not be what it used to be, but it’s not all bad news. Changing technology makes for a learning-intensive profession and the nature of the work makes it a “what you know” rather than a “who you know” kind of field. There will always be things that break, and we will always need people who can fix them.
Mahana leaves us with this to consider, commenting, “It’s always a learning experience—I’m 61 and I’m still learning.”
By Anthony Vitale