Dec 27, 2023

There’s an Auto Technician Shortage. Expect Higher Car Repair Costs

Alex is a MarketWatch Guides team writer that covers automotive and personal finance topics. She’s worked as a content writer for over a dozen car dealerships across the U.S. and as a contributor to several major auto news websites.

Rashawn Mitchner is a MarketWatch Guides team editor with over 10 years of experience covering personal finance, loans, insurance and warranty topics.

Key Takeaways:

If you’ve recently taken a car in for routine maintenance or a repair, you may have faced the longer wait times and high prices plaguing the industry. One of the main causes is a shortage of skilled automotive technicians working in repair shops across the U.S.

We at the MarketWatch Guides team will take a look at the causes of this shortage, reasons why auto shops need more technicians and predictions of whether you’ll soon find respite from soaring prices and long wait times.

This automotive technician shortage isn’t a byproduct of just one factor — it’s the perfect storm of many. The average lifespan of vehicles continues to rise, leading to more, older cars in operation with a greater chance of mechanical breakdowns. In addition, fewer young people are becoming automotive technicians while the baby boomers who make up much of the current workforce begin to age.

Just how bad is the automotive technician shortage? TechForce Foundation, a nonprofit that guides students into careers as professional technicians, releases a Technician Supply and Demand document each year. The group’s latest report, from 2022, includes some startling statistics.

The number of graduates completing postsecondary programs in the automotive sector has dropped 20% since 2020, with 11.8% of this drop occurring in just one year. Projections for demand continue to increase despite this drop in graduates, with the expectation that the U.S. will need over four times more automotive technicians than will graduate in the next five years.

The bottom line? We may need more than 100,000 new technicians to join the workforce every year through 2026 for supply to keep up with demand, and that’s extremely unlikely to happen.

A multitude of factors are driving the need for more auto technicians beyond a lack of new entrants into the workforce. Below, we’ll outline several reasons for the technician shortage.

According to a 2022 study from S&P Global Mobility, the average age of light cars and trucks in operation in the U.S. rose to over 12 years old. The average age of cars reached an all-time high that year — the fifth straight year that the typical vehicle has, on average, gotten older.

Automakers continue to face production cuts due to global chip supply constraints, which have affected the new inventory offered to customers. This study highlights a decrease in vehicle scrappage to support its conclusion, as its rate has dropped to its lowest number in two decades.

In addition, an analysis of AAA’s roadside data found that vehicles 10 years or older are four times as likely to need a tow after a breakdown compared to newer cars. If more vehicles with a higher risk of breakdowns are on the road, demand for car repairs will likely increase the need for car mechanics.

Our team’s research found that the average wage for an automotive technician is about 20% lower than the national average — which, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), is $61,900. With the average yearly salary of an automotive technician sitting at $49,690, current and potential technicians seem to be eying other opportunities to keep up with the cost of living.

As automotive technology advances, the skills needed to repair vehicles increase in tandem. The Universal Technical Institute, a private network of technical colleges throughout the U.S., names the ability to use technology as one of the top skills needed by aspiring technicians looking to enter the workforce.

From advanced driver systems like lane-keep assist and adaptive cruise control to wireless smartphone connectivity and 360-degree vehicle cameras, the cars of today and tomorrow will need technicians who are willing to keep up with ever-changing technology.

Another issue plaguing the automotive repair industry is the lack of completion in postsecondary technician schools. Data from TechForce Foundation’s Technician Supply and Demand report shows that these completions have fallen 34% since 2012, with the group labeling this statistic the most concerning in its 2022 report.

The baby boomer generation, which consists of people born between 1946 and 1964, is rapidly aging out of the workforce. The BLS states that in 2024, this cohort will be between the ages of 60 and 78. In addition, the annual Gallup Economy and Personal Finance survey found that the average retirement age in 2022 was 61, with nonretirees’ target retirement age being 66.

Nicole Miskelley, manager of PMR Auto and Diesel Repair in Marion, Ill., agreed with the sentiment, observing that “technicians aging out is definitely a large factor in the shortage.” She noted that “the baby boomer generation was among the last to encourage hands-on and blue-collar work.” With a lack of younger generations aspiring to join the automotive technician workforce, this is yet another issue plaguing the car repair sector.

Understanding why this automotive technician shortage has come to be is one thing, but what does it mean for vehicle owners? If you’ve recently taken your car to an auto shop or a dealership for repairs, you’ve likely experienced the following:

A lack of automotive technicians means you’ll probably be waiting a longer time for car repairs to be completed. Miskelley has noticed this in her repair shop, where “wait times are definitely increasing, and customers are starting to take notice.” She mentioned that she’s “increasingly hearing people state how they are hearing from all the shops they call that repairs are two to three weeks out at least,” noting that customers “are usually shocked by this [estimate].”

The Center for Automotive Research also attributes longer wait times to supply chain issues, which have been causing problems since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. If a shop is having a hard time ordering parts for your vehicle, you’ll ultimately experience longer wait times for repairs.

While inflation is hitting Americans hard as a whole, motor vehicle repair prices have increased quicker than most. The BLS states that motor vehicle repair costs have jumped nearly 20% in the last year, which is over six times higher than overall price increases in the U.S.

Again, this can be attributed to both supply chain issues and a lack of automotive technicians. More high-tech parts making their way into vehicles furthers this problem, with sophisticated parts becoming more common not only on high trim levels but also on base models.

If you own a vehicle that’s just a few years old, you may feel protected from mechanical breakdowns if your manufacturer’s warranty remains in effect. However, not all drivers are able to pay out of pocket for increasing car repair costs once coverage expires.

You may want to consider an extended car warranty if you’re looking to avoid costly mechanical breakdowns, especially if you own an older vehicle. We recently found that over 36% of Americans are unable to afford more than $500 in unexpected car repair costs. The monthly payments and small deductibles offered by extended warranty providers may work out better for you in the long run, especially if you lack emergency funds to cover an expensive repair.

It’s clear that the automotive technician shortage is being felt strongly by repair shop owners and customers alike. However, will this shortage keep getting worse as time goes on? The answer isn’t as clear-cut as you may think.

As mentioned earlier, automotive technology is evolving at a rapid pace. This leads to the need for more skilled technicians — a gap that isn’t being met by the projection of mechanics likely to join the workforce in the coming years.

Miskelley has noticed a lack of training “needed to address both hard repairs as well as the electrical and technological ones” among technicians new to the workforce. She attributes this to the “limited resources and time to teach the ever-changing technologies” in the automotive education system.

On the other hand, Miskelley predicts that there will be “an increase in mechanics once more electric cars become available,” but ones who are “[less] adept at hard part replacements but ideal for the electrical and technical side.”

Despite major automakers offering a diverse lineup of relatively affordable electric vehicles (EVs), skepticism is still rampant when it comes to adopting electric cars over gas-powered ones.

A recent poll conducted by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago found that 47% of adults in the U.S. say it’s unlikely that they’d buy an EV as their next car. Nearly 80% of participants claimed that the lack of charging infrastructure is their main reason for not considering electric cars. If this skepticism continues and people keep their gas-powered vehicles, the technician shortage is likely to remain as it is.

While EVs account for less than 1% of the over 250 million vehicles in the U.S., sales are seeing exponential growth with each passing year. The BLS states that EV sales in the U.S. have increased from 0.2% of total car sales in 2011 to 4.6% of total car sales in 2021. In addition, S&P Global Mobility is forecasting EV sales to reach 40% of total passenger car sales by 2030.

What does this have to do with the automotive technician shortage? The U.S. Department of Energy notes that EVs typically require less maintenance than the average gas-powered car, truck or SUV. For one, there are fewer moving parts and fluids that require regular maintenance. Also, brakes on EVs are regenerative, which reduces wear and tear. If cars on the road require less maintenance, this could lessen the number of auto technicians needed in the future.

The BLS predicts that the need for automotive technicians will change very little from 2021 to 2031.

Which maintenance services will be required by future vehicles is unknown, as both electric and gas-powered models get more advanced. Only time will tell if the automotive technician predictions set out by the BLS will hold up.

It’s no secret that the U.S. is currently facing an automotive technician shortage, with both customers and shop owners feeling its effects. While signs seem to point to the shortage continuing over time, there may be relief if estimates on EV ownership come true.

However, predictions are tough to rely on when multiple factors play a role. For now, we suggest that you get comfortable with waiting longer and paying more — increased repair times and higher repair costs seem to be here for the long term.

How Bad Is the Shortage?People Are Keeping Their Cars for LongerLess Competitive SalariesSkills Needed for Car Repairs Continue To IncreaseFewer People Completing Postsecondary Technician EducationWorkers Are Aging Out of the IndustryLonger Wait Times for Car RepairsHigher Auto Repair CostsWays To Mitigate High Repair CostsYes: High-Tech Vehicles Require More SkillsYes: People Will Keep Gas-Powered Cars for LongerNo: EVs Generally Require Less MaintenanceNo: The BLS Sees Little Need for More Mechanics