Mechanics’ jobs evolve with new breed of high-tech cars

DALLAS — Five years from now, rookie auto tech John Perez may be stroking computer keys more often than twisting wrenches.

“Everything I learned will probably be outdated by then,” said Perez, 19, a recent graduate of Universal Technical Institute in Irving, Texas.

As cars and trucks get increasingly high-tech — speeding toward the day in a few years when they drive themselves — the role of the back-shop mechanic is evolving dramatically.

So, too, are many shops, which still keep most dealerships cruising along economically in good times and bad.

“Less work and more sophistication is what I see in the years ahead,” said Paul Taylor, chief economist of the National Automobile Dealers Association. “The future is cars that are less troublesome but more complicated.”

For more than a decade, techs such as Perez have been in high demand at car dealerships, with the best commanding wages of $70,000 or more a year.

And for just as long, the parts and service departments have been prized economic engines, often generating enough revenue to cover most of the dealership’s overhead.

That hasn’t changed — yet. But warranty work, once the mainstay of service departments, has plummeted in the past decade as vehicles got vastly better.

At most shops, it dropped from around 70 percent of daily work orders to 30 percent or less.

Likewise, the intervals between maintenance work have grown. Spark plugs last 100,000 miles now, and some synthetic oil can go 10,000 miles between changes.

Consequently, no one is quite sure what service departments — and their critical financial contributions — will look like in a few years.

Dealerships hustle more repair business now, an effort aided by consumers, who are keeping their vehicles longer. Many also offer express oil-change and service facilities to compensate somewhat for the loss of warranty work.

In 2008, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics concluded in its 10-year outlook that job growth in the auto-tech field would be below average, increasing only 5 percent.

However, dealers say, that study failed to foresee many of the changes that are already occurring.

“There are never enough great techs, just like there are never enough great salespeople,” said Carl Sewell, chairman of Dallas-based Sewell Automotive.

To attract “customer-pay” work, dealerships have opened elaborate express-service lanes that compete with independent oil-change businesses.

Some have also jumped deeply into personalizing vehicles — offering custom wheels, bigger tires, running boards, roof racks and even some engine and suspension upgrades.

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