Have you hugged your service tech today?

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I was thinking about the columns I’ve written over the last five years, and the thought hit me that I’ve been pretty critical of technicians in the past. For the record, I like techs, whether they’re antisocial, prima-donnas or otherwise. Frankly, techs put up with a lot. Being a tech is a close second in drudgery to being a service writer. And service writers put up with a lot: They’re the focal point for complaints from the owner who wants greater profit, customers who aren’t satisfied with the work or the cost, and techs who complain about their job assignments, their working conditions and their schedules.

But the technician has a lot of crap to deal with, too. Did you know that before a new-hire takes a job in service, they’ve typically spent thousands? You see, the cost to attend a year of training at a school such as the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute runs more than $20,000 per year, plus an equal amount in living expenses. After graduation, if the tech is lucky, they’ll get hired for about $9 an hour with the expectation that they acquire around $5,000 worth of tools in the first year. Think about it; that’s a school loan, expenses of about $40,000, plus another $5,000 in tools — all to be paid for out of annual wages of about $19,000. It doesn’t add up, does it? I’m not saying it’s wrong. It is what it is ,and it’s been pretty much that way forever. My first job in a Yamaha dealership back in 1971 paid $1.50 an hour with zero benefits.

Tools go with techs like peanut butter goes with jelly. It’s not unusual for an expert-level tech with five or more years of experience to have purchased up to $30,000 in tools and cabinets. If a motorcycle tech was knocking down a six-figure income, I’d have no empathy. But most don’t, and $30 grand buys a lot of beer, motorcycle parts and shoes (not in that order, and the shoes are for the wife). Could the tech make do with fewer tools? Sure, but every job they’d perform would take longer and, in turn, earn the shop fewer dollars. (By the way, this extraordinary investment is why the quickest way to get bit by a rabid technician is to mess with their tools. Sales personnel, beware!) Then there’s the routine that makes up more than 50 percent of a dealership tech’s workday. Techs get into this business because it’s exciting to fix bikes, make them run better, run faster or just look cooler. Then reality sets in: they’ll be doing the same work day-in and day-out. The routine is so hard on a tech that the No. 1 reason they quit the business (this from an Harley-Davidson survey performed around 1995) is the lack of interesting work. This should remind service writers to mix up job assignments to keep techs interested and challenged.

Chemicals; no one likes them (the kind used in the service department, not for recreation), and technicians have to work with harsh cleaners and solvents every day. These cause skin irritation at the least and can kill internal body organs at the worst. Techs should be wearing masks and gloves when working with chemicals or they may be kissing their OE kidneys and/or liver goodbye long before reaching the happy hunting grounds.

Exhaust not only smells bad and burns the skin, the fumes can contain enough carbon monoxide to kill a cat. The drag pipes that cruiser riders like so much will ruin your hearing (mine on the right is roughly 50 percent what it used to be, thanks to the straight-pipe Harleys I rode back in the day).

And, here’s more proof: A tech I worked with years ago went to the doctor because he was feeling rundown. After some tests, it was determined his blood had absorbed a high amount of carbon monoxide, thanks in part to the shop’s lack of ventilation, a low ceiling and small square footage for five busy techs, including myself. Dyno operators beware, because many test rooms do a poor job of removing the gas and replenishing it with fresh air. BTW: Unusually red fingernails are an indication that excessive CO may be in your system.

Cuts, burns and bruises — they’re a part of life. But, a tech gets more than his or her fair share. In fact, it’s rare to see a tech without a bandage or an open wound. When you add open wounds to the harsh chemicals being used, you know it’s not good. But techs don’t care. If it doesn’t hurt today, it’s forgotten. The problem is, everything we get on our skin will be absorbed to some degree. Don’t forget the gloves, dumbass!

Lastly, there’s the physical regimen of being on your feet eight to 10 hours a day. If the shop has work mats, it’s not so bad. Better yet is what my friend Glen Bishop did. He installed a suspended wood floor (from a reclaimed basketball court) in his BMW repair shop, and underneath that, a heating system. The combination of wood and warmth is about as good as it gets. Bravo!

So, think about it; techs spend more than any other employee in the store just to get and hold their jobs. They have to deal with harsh chemicals, hot exhaust, cuts, burns and bruises and a routine that would put most intelligent individuals to sleep with aching feet. That’s why I recommend showing techs a little gratitude for a tough job well done. Go ahead, hug your tech today. Just remember to stay away from their tools.

This story originally appeared in the Dealernews May 2010 issue.