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As auto repair goes high tech, top technicians can earn over $100K

Auto mechanic work has become a lot more high-tech over the past decade with the use of computers to control most of an automobile’s functions.

Mark Grayston, Shop Foreman at Otto's BMW wearing the TSARA Technical Support & Research Assistant, headset in the Service Center at Otto's BMW, 1275 Wilmington Pike, West Chester, PA on Tuesday, February 23, 2021.
Mark Grayston, Shop Foreman at Otto's BMW wearing the TSARA Technical Support & Research Assistant, headset in the Service Center at Otto's BMW, 1275 Wilmington Pike, West Chester, PA on Tuesday, February 23, 2021.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Mark Grayston looks like a computer engineer or programmer with an eyepiece strapped to his head, peering at two monitors, and reading out commands to his software interface.

“Scan task,” Grayston said quietly. “Continue,” he added after a moment.

Grayston isn’t in the tech sector, though his job increasingly shares similarities with workers who spend their days grappling with software. Grayston, 40, is at the keyboard searching for repair instructions and a diagnostic action plan on a 2021 BMW X6 40 at Otto’s BMW in West Chester.

The futuristic eyepiece links to the TSARA interface — Technical Support and Research Assistant — BMW’s proprietary software that allows workers in the shop to diagnose and repair vehicles, even contacting engineers and specialists to talk through repairs.

As Grayston looks through the eyepiece, he can page through online shop manuals, see the diagram of an area of the engine or a specific part, and share information with a specialist so that person can see what the technician is viewing.

“Digitalization has taken over the automotive industry in the last year or so,” said Grayston, Otto’s shop foreman, overseeing 26 BMW technicians at the West Chester automobile dealer.

While many people still consider auto repair to be grimy, wrench-turning grunt work, the field today is as different from that notion as a gas-guzzling 1980 Ford Fairmont is from a 2021 Volvo XC90 Recharge.

And while the trade is changing, incorporating more sophisticated tools to diagnose and repair increasingly more complex cars that can truly be described as computers on wheels, the core of the craft, the underlying skills, remain.

“There’s still knowledge and hands-on and diagnostics,” said Otto’s service manager, Chris Clayton. “You still have to do your due diligence.”

The work is very different from what it was

The terms “mechanic” and “votech,” shorthand for vocational-technical school, are long out of favor — it’s “auto repair technician” and “career technical education,” said Mary Lynn Alvarino, director of operations for the Auto Dealers Association of Greater Philadelphia. The upgrade in title reflects the fundamental transformation underway in the entire automotive industry.

Consider the complexity of today’s vehicles, said Jeffrey Jennings, Volvo Car Americas’ technical training senior manager. The internal combustion engine will one day be found only in museums as more and more carmakers convert their fleets to electric vehicles. There are already components of autonomous driving — automatic braking systems, adaptive cruise control — in most vehicles.

“All the different radar/lidar systems we have on cars now are far more complicated than even a Boeing 787,” Jennings said.

While the average car in 2010 had about 10 million lines of code, it’s now increased tenfold and beyond, according to McKinsey & Co. and Bosch. Ford’s F-150 presentation at the Consumer Electronics Show at Las Vegas in 2016 said the truck had 150 million lines of code.

A 2018 McKinsey report, “Ready for Inspection: The Automotive Aftermarket in 2030,” said that some automobiles by 2030 would have about 300 million lines of code, and recommended manufacturers beef up the software and electronics training of service technicians.

Much more training now required

Auto technicians require a lot of training with the growing complexity of their work and sophistication of their tools.

Steven Dwyer, a team leader at Otto’s, said that a new BMW technician hire could go to in-person training at a company training facility for eight days during the first year on the job, and a seasoned BMW technician would normally spend 40 hours a year on web-based training.

Although hooking up cars to diagnostic computers may seem like old news, in today’s more complex vehicles, even a seemingly simple problem such as a failed headlamp on a 2009 BMW 3 Series, can still require data from multiple control modules, wiring, and even igniters for bulbs that use xenon gas.

Jennings, who joined Volvo about 18 months ago, said one of his projects there has been to update the company’s training requirements for expert-level technicians. It now requires up to 50 instructor-led days and three assessments, up from 16 days and some web-based training. This is on top of the prerequisites for lower levels, and a standard year or so training in basic auto repair at a technical school.

Undergirding all this growing sophistication, however, the basics needed for technicians remain the same, said Keith Yancy, a director with Mopar’s Career Automotive Program, or CAP, which partners with 100 technical schools nationwide to provide certified technical training. Mopar is based in Auburn Hills, Michigan.

Yancy outlined the best skills technicians require, such as general mechanical ability, facility with diagnostics and computers, and problem-solving and people skills.

“People who like solving puzzles tend to do very well as an automotive technician,” Yancy said.

The future of the career

For at least the last decade — dealers and repair shops have been in great need of skilled technicians.

“The need for top-notch auto technicians has been a long-term problem,” said Hector Guzmán, field director Auto Dealers Association of Greater Philadelphia.

While the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a decline in employment in the broad field of about 4% through 2029, representatives from the postsecondary technical school Universal Technical Institute, perhaps not surprisingly, disagree and expect a wave of retiring boomers will create 100,000 job openings annually over the next decade or so. Universal Technical Institute, or UTI, has 14 training locations in eight states, including Pennsylvania.

Local experts cautioned that it’s important to draw a distinction between the broader industry and the more high-end technicians at work at places like BMW and Volvo.

Guzmán, of the Auto Dealers Association, said the pandemic has deepened what he deems a shortage of technicians, with service managers unable to fill the need of dealerships.

While Jennings at Volvo said the dealership is finding it difficult to keep its service bays filled with workers. “We need about 400 technicians a year, and we, Volvo, are only finding upwards of 220,” Jennings said. “So there’s still a big gap.”

Filling that gap will take workers like Dan Scott, a technician who’s been with BMW since 2018 and joined Otto’s in January. Scott said even though he was always interested in cars, he tried the college route first. He found it wasn’t for him. “It took me trying college to realize I have to be using my hands all the time,” Scott said.

So, how’s the pay?

“A good auto technician can make well into six figures,” said Mopar’s Yancy.

Though auto repair technicians have to earn their chops and keep learning, financial rewards can come at a young age.

Mopar’s CAP website highlights a 2019 National Automobile Dealers Association study showing the earnings potential for a variety of roles in automotive service. While at the starting end of the scale, express-lube technicians average $31,300, adding more skills raises that average in increments, up to a master-A technician averaging $77,400.

Further up the ladder, a parts manager’s salary averages $98,600, a service manager $120,400, and a fixed operations director — who oversees service, parts and body shop — $191,000.

Yancy said some technicians in Stellantis dealerships, with the proper training, experience, and work, can earn well above $160,000. Some specializations include areas of repair such as transmissions or HVAC.

Guzmán explained that technicians are generally compensated on a flat-rate system, where workers get paid a fixed amount regardless of how long it takes. So working to get quicker pays off.

“You get to a point where you’re making solid money per flat rate hour and all of a sudden getting 60-70 hours in a work week when you only physically worked 40; that is how you take this trade to the next level,” Guzman said.

“You can get an apprenticeship with a retailer, you get in at 18, three, four years in, you’re not paying any costs for education, the retailer is paying for your education, sending you to Volvo, getting you top-notch training for free,” said Chris Roszko, a master technician and shop foreman for a Volvo dealer in Winchester, Virginia. “You’re not making a whole lot of money the first couple of years, but as you evolve, I mean, all of my technician friends and myself, we do very well, we’re able to support our families.”

But that level requires a great deal of training, preparation, and experience. And Otto’s service manager Clayton expects more change in the future.

“Now that we’re headed toward electrification, it’s going to be a whole new ball game,” Clayton said.

The Future of Work is produced with support from the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.