CHOOSING A MECHANIC

What’s it cost for an hour of shop time these days? A hundred bucks? A little more? A little less? You’re in the ballpark, and if that figure seems a little hard to swallow, a cheap alternative could leave you with a pretty large lump in your throat as well. I’d urge you to look at what you get for your money — it’s like that AAMCO transmission ad on TV used to say, “You can pay me now, or pay me later …”

You may think one hundred bucks an hour is hard to justify, but the cost of running a well-equipped shop with experienced technicians is staggering. For example, it costs about $5,000 to send one mechanic away on a week-long engine overhaul course when lost revenues for the week and course fees are worked into the equation. Multiply that by 30 mechanics sent on two or three training missions each year, and you get an idea where some of your hundred-dollars-an-hour goes.

It costs money to keep up with evolving technology.

Not surprisingly, today’s high labor costs have given rise to a lower-cost alternative: contract mechanics. Mostly, they’re dealer trained, and provide dealer quality service — but at reduced labor rates. Many of these contractors operate registered and insured businesses and have invested in the proper tooling. They are often found circulating from shop to shop, serving existing customers where a lot of you have your less technical running repairs seen to.

Contract mechanics are a viable alternative to dealerships. For the owner-operator who runs locally, there’s little risk in doing business with them, but many of the same cautions that we discussed last month still apply (insist on a completed repair quote and pin down the warranties they are offering on parts and labor).

But there’s a dark side to the high cost of good technical help: the rogue, fly-by-night mechanics who work cheap — sometimes “under the table.” Seldom do they offer any warranty, and they usually don’t carry the insurance to cover the costs of possible failures that can run into the tens of thousands of dollars in some cases.

We’ve all seen this kind of mechanic working out of the trunks of their cars with the same toolbox most of you carry in your jockey box. These guys will leave an owner-op holding a bag of scrap parts — and an empty wallet — and not give you a second thought.
A bit of grease under the fingernails does not a mechanic make: these folks are often poorly trained and generally inexperienced, but that won’t prevent them from taking on jobs they can’t handle — and leaving you in the lurch when the repairs they made need re-repairing.

I’ve had the privilege of reassembling those bags of scrap parts on more than one occasion, and it’s not pretty. And just try getting your money back for a job poorly done — if you can ever find them again.

Sure, not every repair job requires a highly trained and experienced technician, but for those that do, I can’t imagine why you’d roll the dice when it involves big dollar engine and gear train repairs.

I’m a decent mechanic today, but I wasn’t born with a wrench in my hand. I made a few big expensive mistakes as I learned the trade, and I worked for some understanding service managers that recognized mistakes are part of the learning curve (don’t let it happen again, Darren, or you’ll be greasing trailers for the next six months). Those mistakes cost my employers money, but they backed the work I did and came good for their customers.

What’s that kind of peace of mind worth to you?

We all want to save a buck or two when we can, but scrimping on quality parts and workmanship isn’t the way to do it. Dealerships do charge a premium for their services, but there’s more rolled into the price than just the time spent on your job. Like drivers, you don’t get expert mechanics right out of school. When you deal with a reputable shop you might pay a little more for the experience and expertise, but it won’t cost you a bundle in the long run.

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