For a business looking to remain open for some time, it can be worthwhile. However, many owners of auto shops are approaching retirement. Nearly half of all auto shop owners are 60 years old or more according to an industry survey. 30% of auto shop owners are considering quitting the sector by 2024. “You’re seeing older guys say, ‘Hey, I spent enough money, so I’m not gonna buy new equipment,’” says John Firm, who owns Firm Automotive, a mechanical shop in Fort Worth, Texas. “These shops don’t do the training, don’t buy the equipment, and they’re being left behind.” (Firm is himself considering retirement.)
Laura Gay, who quit her collision repair shop six years back and makes a living helping owners to sell theirs, shares a grim picture of car repair. Reimbursements from insurers aren’t keeping up with the cost of fixing today’s complex cars, she says. As older workers age and lower starting wages make it difficult for younger people to work in shops, they are also finding difficulty hiring staff. Shop owners “are just fed up,” she says. “They are physically and mentally drained—we went from a very simple industry to a very complex industry.”
According to industry experts, the current repair crisis is only going to worsen. “We’re in for a bumpy ride over the next 10 or 15 years,” says White, the business coach. “There’s more people wanting repairs than there are people to repair them.”
The auto shops that make it through the tough times will be busier than ever and may look very different to those in years past. After a decades-long shortage of auto technicians, businesses are keen to attract a new generation of workers excited about electric cars or automated driving technology—as White puts it, people more like Star Trek Engineer Geordi laForge rather than Gomer Pyle, the grease monkey Andy Griffith Show.
The stereotype of the grubby, grimy mechanic with a wrench at his side may fade as the auto shop becomes less common. “These complexities have made it more difficult for a shop to operate if it’s not running properly—if it’s not properly funded, not properly insured, doesn’t have the correct tooling, doesn’t have the right insurance,” says Lucas Underwood, the North Carolina shop owner.
Brandon Mehizadeh in Minnesota is also the chairman of the Collision Division of the Automotive Services Association. This trade association consists of independent repair shops. He has seen new employees enter the industry. “We’re getting a lot more techie students, who are interested in computers and software and pretty whizzy with an iPhone and an iPad,” he says. When one of his shops decided to certify a technician in Kia, Nissan, and Fiat Chrysler repair, he nominated his youngest technician—making an investment in the repair industry’s future.