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Automotive repair undergoes transition as cars get more complex and older mechanics retire

Increasingly sophisticated cars ensures that the next generation of automotive techs will need a grasp of math and science.

Shannon Driscoll works in the body shop at Carvana, the online car sales company, in Delanco.
Shannon Driscoll works in the body shop at Carvana, the online car sales company, in Delanco.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Shannon Driscoll, 28, is the tomboy type, so it’s ironic that her job title is “cosmetic associate.”

There’s no lipstick involved. She’s a “cosmetic associate,” as in making messed-up cars beautiful.

“I mainly do bodywork — removal and installations, paintwork, bodywork, remove and install hoods, doors, headlights, taillights,” said Driscoll, whose skills fall under the broad array of duties performed by auto mechanics, or as they are called now, technicians, a nod to the increasing automotive computerization.

“I’ve taken the entire front end of a vehicle off to where it was just the engine showing,” she boasted.

» READ MORE: As auto repair goes high tech, top technicians can earn over $100K

Driscoll had been heading into nursing — an occupation that the U.S. Department of Labor predicts will grow by 7% by 2029, adding nearly 3.1 million jobs. By contrast, the forecast for mechanics is the opposite — declining 4% and losing 27,800 positions.

Nursing pays better, $75,000 in annual salary, compared with $44,050 for technicians.

Even so, for Driscoll, the future of work is in automotive.

Why did she pivot?

“I was semi-interested in nursing but not fully interested,” said Driscoll, who lives with her husband, Matthew Szukalski, in Northeast Philadelphia. Everyone was pushing her into nursing — the pay, the growth, the job stability — so she enrolled in Community College of Philadelphia’s nursing program.

When Driscoll, working at a supermarket then, found out she’d have to go to school full time, nursing became a nonstarter. A homeless childhood made her unwilling to face financial insecurity, so she was reluctant to stop working for any reason, including attending school full time. To that, add a general wariness of bodily fluids. “I’m not squeamish, but I wasn’t sure how I’d react. Having someone else’s life in my hands — it sounds like an extremely stressful job,” she said.

“College is a very scary thing. It’s debt, and you can’t work,” she said. When she discovered CCP’s automotive technology program, she enrolled on the spot because she could work while in school.

Plus, it was cars. Enough said.

“I really love my cars,” she said. “When I was a little girl, I had my girly moments when I was young, but I always thought the boy stuff was cooler. I started to play with the radio-control cars. I liked cars — the way they look, the way they sound.”

She began work at Carvana, the online car dealership, in September 2018, immediately after earning her associate’s degree in applied science in automotive from CCP.

“They prepared me for the industry,” she said. She loves her job, admires Carvana’s innovative approach, and now earns $19.76 an hour, after several raises. Eventually, she hopes to get into management.

How Driscoll’s pivot to auto mechanics will play out is unknown, particularly with a renewed emphasis on electric vehicles.

Earlier this month, after tooling around the White House lawn driving a hybrid Jeep Wrangler 4XE, President Joe Biden signed an executive order calling for half of new passenger car sales to be electric vehicles by the end of the decade.

The U.S. Labor Department believes that increased computerization in cars will require fewer technicians. Diagnosis will be simpler, leading to easier repairs, so fewer people will be needed. That’s the long view, but it is not what’s happening on the ground.

“Virtually every dealer I know says they have an opening for a tech at some level,” said Mary Lynn Alvarino, director of operations at the Auto Dealers Association of Greater Philadelphia. Her group represents 180 dealerships in the area, employing 17,000 people.

Shortages are so prevalent, she said, that “if someone were to present themselves at a dealership, and say, `I don’t have any professional training, but I’m interested in cars,’ they’d say, `Let’s sit down and talk, and we’d love to have you onboard.’”

Alvarino blames the shortage on parents pushing their children toward college-based careers. That, she said, has led generally to a defunding of vocational/technical programs at the secondary school level. At the same time, because of increasing technology, automotive technicians need better math and science skills, eliminating a whole category of students who fell into the field to escape the classroom.

There’s a misconception that the work is dirty and physically demanding, Alvarino said, but those conditions have eased.

Meanwhile, exacerbating the shortage, older mechanics have been retiring, some because of age, and others who are unwilling or unable to adapt to technology, Alvarino said. COVID-19 has hastened the trend.

Pay has also been an issue, she said. Top mechanics can earn a decent living, but it takes time and drive to do the work fast enough. Mechanics get paid by the task, rewarding efficiency and penalizing slower workers. Entry-level pay is $13 to $15 an hour, she said. And, Alvarino said, technicians at the top of their game can earn $100,000 a year.

As for technology, it’s true, Alvarino said, that computers in cars have eased diagnosis. But “even though the computers may help, it’s not as straightforward as you think. The [computer] diagnosis does give you a nice trail of bread crumbs to follow,” she said, but one hint from the computer often leads to another problem, and then to another. “It’s telling you what the problem is, but you still have to know how to fix it.”

That is Driscoll’s take, as well, and explains why she was willing to bet on automotive.

“A computer can’t control wear and tear on different parts. It can’t control the suspension, the tires, the brakes,” she said. As for electric cars, “I think that’s where the world is heading, but [electric cars] have a lot of issues. You still need people to work on them. Even when cars fly, cars can’t repair themselves.

“Maybe they could replace us all with robots, but there are sounds that cars make that you have to be able to hear,” she said. “You are always going to need human interaction.”

Driscoll’s instructor, Richard Saxton, assistant professor of automotive technology and head of CCP’s transportation technologies department, couldn’t agree more. Same with his boss, Pam Carter, dean of the college’s Business and Technology division.

That’s why CCP has been willing to bet on automotive, as well, investing $33.5 million to construct its new 77,000-square-foot Career and Advanced Technology Center next to the college’s West Philadelphia campus at 48th and Market Streets. The current facility has four automotive bays; the new one, set to open next year, will have 14.

The new facilities, Carter said, have been designed on the advice of industry partners, who are suggesting equipment and curriculum. Students can begin working for CCP’s automotive partners as they study, earning $17 to $22 an hour on graduation.

CCP is developing an automotive technician registered apprenticeship, plus creating programs centered on medium to heavy trucks and alternative fuels. Half the building will be devoted to related fields such as advanced manufacturing.

Those who think that automotive technicians will be phased out, Carter said, are underestimating the flexibility of education in responding to demand. “Our education is changing as the field is changing.”

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.