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Lack of parts and mechanics adds weeks to car repairs in Michigan

car being worked on
A mechanic at Liskey’s Auto & Truck Service lifts the hood of a car for inspection. Repairs that once took a couple of days may now take weeks. (Bridge photo by Jared Ramsey)

LANSING — Nicholas Randall may extend work days at  Redline Auto Services to 12 hours, spanning from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays then staying open on the weekends.

That may be the only way, he said, to keep up with increasing car repair requests at the shop he manages.

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Redline had 42 cars lined up for repairs one day last week, and service times that once took days now may take as long as three weeks. 

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Hiring more mechanics could be a solution, but the applications received so far aren’t filling the open positions. So increasing work hours may be the only way to meet the demand, Randall said.

“It would last until we finally find another qualified employee that can pick up the slack,” he said. “Our guys do not want to be here any extra hours.

“I value a weekend more than anybody, but I also value my customers and I know their car has to get done.”

The national outlook is grim for shops that need to hire mechanics amid a surge of consumers seeking car repairs. The number of technician jobs dropped 6.1 percent nationwide from 2016 to 2020, according to a 2021 report from the TechForce Foundation.

The report predicts that by 2025 nearly 5,000 new technician jobs will need to be created and 173,000 existing technician jobs will need to be filled to meet demands for car repairs. 

The struggle to hire certified mechanics coincides with the high demand for used car repair after the global microchip shortage.  The semiconductor — or microchips that serve as the “brain” of a car’s technology — shortage bogged down new car production in 2020 and 2021, resulting in more drivers on the road with older cars, which led to an increase in repair demands. 

“With the shortage right now of new cars and chips, people really need to maintain their older car,” Randall said. “It's a two-to-three week waiting process right now to get your car in, get parts ordered, delivered and get your car done. And it used to be, at most, two to three days.”

Vehicles are also getting more complex in terms of parts and technology, which has increased service costs. At the same time, the parts are moving slowly around the world because of supply chain issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“There are supply chain issues throughout the industry,  and it varies from part-to-part, vehicle-to-vehicle, brand-to-brand,” said Terry Burns, executive vice president of the Michigan Automobile Dealership Association. “And it may be difficult to get a particular part this month and next month it may be plentiful.”

According to Forbes, auto manufacturers are expecting the supply chain issues and chip shortages to decline by the second half of 2022, which in turn is expected to boost new car production. 

In the meantime, for Michigan drivers, these issues have resulted in substantially increased waiting times and growing costs to get their car fixed. 

And repair shop owners say the pressure doesn’t end there:  Wages have increased to pay their staff overtime to meet the demand, and they’ve also had to raise prices to cover parts shipping costs.

“It goes to the end of the consumer,” Adam Keusch, manager of Keusch Super Service in Grand Ledge, said. “Let's say we're at $89 an hour then I’ve got to go to $95 an hour just to pay for the extra costs. “

The number of auto service technicians in the state increased by 4.06 percent (760 in total) from 2019 to 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. During that time, the hourly wage for auto service technicians in Michigan increased by 6.43 percent (from $21.15 to $22.51). 

Over the same time period, the average weekly wage in Michigan across all industries increased nearly 17 percent as many sectors compete for workers. While the unemployment rate is low at 4.3 percent, the labor force participation rate in Michigan is among the lower third of the U.S. at 59.8 percent.

The situation with used autos means “help wanted” signs are a frequent sight outside of auto service and body shops like Redline as they try to hire new mechanics. Owners say that there is a lack of qualified applicants with technician certifications for open positions.

Shops are trying different methods to retain workers by raising hourly salaries, paying for technician certification classes for young employees and increasing apprenticeship opportunities to try to make their shops appealing over others. 

“It seems to be as difficult as it has ever been,” Randall said. “We offer very competitive pay, we offer full benefits for employees, we're a family owned business and it's still hard to find someone that wants to work a labor job right now.”

The lack of mechanics is also hitting car dealerships hard. Dealership garages mainly deal with warranty repair on newer cars and those repairs have been slowed considerably by a need for parts and workers, Burns said.

“We need more technicians at almost every location across the state,” Burns said.

Shop owners worry the hiring pressures won’t end as they look ahead to an aging workforce moving towards retirement and a lack of interest from young workers entering the profession.

“Ten to 15 years ago, you'd get one guy walking in every couple of weeks looking for work. We haven't had a mechanic walk in our door in probably two years looking for work,” Jerry Carpenter, the owner of Liskey’s Auto & Truck Service in Lansing, said. 

“We're seeing a shortage and now it's going to get worse because the old guys are getting burned out. They are in their 60s and they're getting ready for their retirement.”

Liskey’s staff has decreased from 13 technicians to seven over the last decade. The shop used to complete nearly every job on the same day the car was turned in, Carpenter proudly said, but the average wait time has tripled.

Those same-week turnarounds are unique:  According to CCC Intelligent Solutions’ 2022 Crash Course mid-year Report, 80 percent of shops in the U.S. are scheduling vehicle repairs out two weeks or more into the future.

Chad Lodenstein, who leads the automotive department at Grand Rapids Community College, said this is the highest demand for car mechanics in the job market he has ever seen.

However, the overall enrollment in the program has declined since 2012. From 2002 to 2012, enrollment has fallen each year in the past decade. Lodenstein said he believes it is because of the negative stigma that mechanics are underpaid for a physically demanding job.

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The program now struggles to keep enrolled students for the entire two years to get their associates degree because shops need them sooner to fill vacancies. Lodenstein said that since most shops do not require a college degree to work, students are jumping at the higher wages being offered for full-time mechanics. 

Shop owners agree that they do not see as much interest shown from the younger workforce to become a mechanic compared to the past. They believe that is because teens consider white-collar jobs more lucrative and easier, and many did not grow up tinkering on engines as much as older generations to pique their interest. 

“It's devastating to our industry,” Carpenter said, “because where do we go to find young techs and people that are interested in joining our field?” 

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