Laurent Legault is 101 years old. That fact, all by itself, is of course noteworthy. Even in these days of aging Boomers and revolutionary medicine, hitting the century is not nearly common enough that it passes, or should pass, unnoticed. According to GenealogyInTime magazine, only 0.0173 per cent of we Boomers will ever celebrate a triple-digit birthday.
But that’s not what makes Legault extraordinary. Not by a long shot. Nope, what makes Legault one in a million — and not the one in 5,790.42 that GenealogyInTime’s 0.0173 per cent works out to — is that he’s still working. As a mechanic, no less. As in wrenching on carburetors, changing spark plugs, and, if someone comes in with a flat, hoisting the repaired tire and wheel onto its spindle.
But, again, that’s not even what makes Legault truly extraordinary. Indeed, why you need to Google Mr. Legault is that he’s still wrenching and hoisting full-time. As in 40 hours a week, five days for a full eight hours each and every day, no hobby time for Laurent. Indeed, he appears to be almost apologetic in telling a TVAnouvelles.ca reporter that he no longer works the “12 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week” that were common for the first 50 years of his career, a deference he allows himself presumably because he’s 101 freakin’ years old.
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The only sad part of this otherwise incredibly inspiring story — I’m a gym rat and, having had to change a tire but last week, I can tell you that my lower lumbars were not happy with my decision not to call CAA — is that the automotive repair industry might need Mr. Legault to stay on the job as long as he can. As anyone who’s tried to get a car repaired recently can attest, it’s a longer and more drawn-out affair than it was a just few short years ago. According to Forbes, car repairs now take a full 2.1 days longer than they did pre-pandemic, while J.D. Power says the wait time just to schedule a service appointment now takes a day longer.
Stories of excessive wait times, irate customers, and unsatisfactory repairs are way more common than they were just a decade ago. Things are actually so bad that the Quebec arm of the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) is recommending that all its members start booking their winter tire change now — La Belle Province requires that all cars be riding on snow tires by December 1 — because the job might not get done in time. And the problem isn’t supply-chain issues. There are enough tires to fit all the wheels in Quebec, just not enough mechanics to install them.
The problem is acute throughout the industry. According to rockstarmechanics.com, in the U.S., there are 85,000 job postings on Indeed looking to hire mechanics, and only 19,000 certified technicians listed as actively looking for a job. Here in Canada, the numbers are worse, with just 1,500 techs on Indeed Canada looking to fill 7,500 jobs.
The imbalance has led to desperate measures. One dealer friend of mine recently noted that he had upped his hourly shop rate another $5.00 again this year. Nothing strange about that at all, you say — aren’t they always increasing prices? Sure, except that he paid all of that increase — all of it, he stressed with not a little incredulity — back to his technicians. Indeed, throughout the land, dealerships are offering better compensation packages, more benefits, and more flexible hours, all in the hopes of retaining current employees and attracting new ones. There are even reports of dealers offering their techs ‘bounties’ if they bring a new mechanic to the shop who stays for, say, at least a year. Auto dealers have notoriously — and sadly — been too long dismissive of their technicians’ needs; this seemingly sudden reversal of fortune speaks, then, to how desperate times really have become.
Only this issue is not nearly as sudden as we think. Indeed, all the experts that Motor Mouth talked with say that the pandemic only exacerbated a trend that started at least a decade or two ago. High costs — mechanics pay for many of their own tools — and an education system that long promoted university at the expense of the trades has led to a chronic shortage of apprentices. The pandemic’s Great Retirement — Legault would seem to have missed the memo — has only exacerbated and hastened the shortage.
Car repairs now take a full 2.1 days longer than they did pre-pandemic, while the wait time just to schedule a service appointment now takes a day longer
It all comes at the most inopportune time. For one thing, according to Statista, there are approximately 39 per cent more cars, trucks, buses, and motorcycles on the road now than in 1990. Further complicating things is that we’re keeping our cars longer, the median lifespan of a car in North America now exceeding 12 years. Throw in the fact that there’s an electric vehicle revolution happening that will require a wholesale change in training, that hybrid and PHEV vehicles are going to prove especially challenging (since they are a combination of both ICE and BEV) and that, thanks to changes that resulted from COVID-19’s lockdowns, more of the education of mechanics is being done remotely, and you have a problem working its way to calamity.
Smarter shops are already taking steps to redress this issue. Some are now paying hourly wages with bonuses for productivity. Those paying flat-rate — pay per job as per a schedule set by the manufacturer — are now adding in diagnostic time pay that may not have been previously recompensed. Nonetheless, it’s hard to see how this downward trend is going to be reversed without policy changes and a re-imagining of the industry.
The first step is obvious. Our denigration of the trades has to stop. The concept that a university education is the only road to a high-paying job would seem laughable when a truly productive mechanic can now earn over $100,000 yearly.
The second is a re-imaging of the job. Or, more accurately, a realistic assessment of what mechanics actually do. Most automobiles these days have no fewer than 100 digital controllers, both simple and complicated, monitoring various performance, emissions, and safety functions. As every mechanic knows – but few customers and policy-makers appreciate – they need to be as digitally savvy as the average IT specialist. So much so that, when BEVs eliminate the grimy fingernails caused by the ICE’s engine oil, “auto technician” might get redefined as a white-collar job. Indeed, if the modern automobiles really has become nothing but a mobile phone on wheels, isn’t it also about time that an auto mechanic be considered a digital technician?
Cars are getting more complicated, and therefore more expensive. That higher cost of replacement means we’re keeping them longer. And older cars, just like older humans, require more ‘treatment’ as they live longer.
All except for perhaps Mr. Legault, it would seem. Along with wrenching on cars, he’s got a hobby. His sideline? Shovelling snow off rooftops. The man is a hero.