That investment may be worth it for a business that plans to stay open for a while, but many auto shop owners are approaching retirement. A 2019 industry survey found that nearly half of auto shop owners were 60 years of age or older. And 30 percent of store owners were thinking of leaving the industry by 2024. “You see older guys say, ‘Hey, I’ve spent enough money, so I’m not going to buy new equipment,'” says John Firm, owner of Firm Automotive, a mechanical shop in Fort Worth, Texas. “These stores don’t do the training, don’t buy the equipment, and they get left behind.” (The company is considering retiring itself.)
Laura Gay, who sold her bodyshop six years ago and now earns a living helping other owners sell theirs, paints a bleak picture of life in auto repair today. Insurance fees don’t keep pace with the repair costs of today’s complex cars, she says. Meanwhile, shops struggle to find workers as industry seniors age and young people are rejected by low starting wages. Retailers “are just tired of it,” she says. “They’re physically and mentally exhausted — we’ve gone from a very simple industry to a very complex industry.”
Industry experts say the repair crisis is likely to get worse before it gets better. “We’re going to have a bumpy ride in the next 10 or 15 years,” said White, the business coach. “There are more people who want repairs than there are people to fix them.”
Expect the auto shops that survive to be busier and look different from the ones they used to be. After a decades-long shortage of auto technicians, companies are eager to attract a new generation of workers who are excited about electric cars or automated driving technology — as White puts it, people love more Star Trek engineer Geordi LaForge then fat monkey Gomer Pyle from the The Andy Griffith Show.
As the traditional car repair shop disappears, so does the stereotype about the gray and dirty car repair technique with a wrench in his hand. “These complexities have made it harder for a store to function if it isn’t running well — if it isn’t well-funded, isn’t properly insured, doesn’t have the right tools, doesn’t have the right insurance,” says Lucas Underwood, the store owner in North Carolina.
In Minnesota, Brandon Mehizadeh, who also chairs the Collision Division of the Automotive Services Association, a trade group of independent repair shops, has already begun to see new hires enter the trade. “We’re getting a lot more techies who are interested in computers and software and are quite fickle with an iPhone and an iPad,” he says. When one of his stores decided to certify a mechanic for repairs on Kia, Nissan and Fiat Chrysler, he nominated its youngest mechanic and invested in the future of the repair industry.