What They Don’t Tell You in Trade School


Anyone who follows me knows that I love the Mechanic Trade. There are a ton of reasons for this including the job stability, high demand, above average pay rates but more than all of the logical and financial reasons, being a mechanic is just such a cool job. You are not stuck in an office, sitting around getting fat butt disease. You are also not in a mindless labour job. Mechanic work is a great balance of using brains and brawn.

All the being said, much like every job, a career in mechanics does have its downside. I have been accused (rightfully) of being too pie in the sky, Michael Christopherson recently reminded me that “it is not all grassy fields and unicorns.” Michael was good enough to also send some key points to consider, if you are considering a job in the Mechanic Trade I still highly recommend it but make sure you know all the facts and watch out for:

  • Flat Rate Shops
  • Ongoing Costs (Tools, Uniforms, Insurance)
  • Physical Toll
  • Working Conditions

Flat Rate Shops

First on the list is uncompensated time, chiefly with Flat Rate Shops. Flat rate is most commonly found with Automotive Dealerships but I have also seen it in some independent repair shops as well as Diesel Truck Shops. When you are considering a new job make sure you know if they are paying straight time or flat rate, it makes a huge difference.

Straight time is easy, if you are paid $20/hr and you work 40 hours in a week you will be paid $800 (less taxes, insurance etc.)

Flat Rate is a lot trickier, you are still given an hourly rate i.e. $20/hr but instead of getting paid for how many hours you work, you are paid for how many jobs you complete and each job is given a target time. For example a brake job might be targeted as a 1 hour job, regardless of how long it takes you to finish the job you are paid $20. If you happen to be a very fast tech this can work out to your benefit but more often than not this favours the employer.

The big risk to Flat Rate is you are at the mercy of how busy the shop is. If no work comes in you can sit around the shop all day and get paid nothing. Also, if something goes wrong or unexpected on a job you are not compensated for that. You will run into jobs that have complications and that comes out of your end.

Flat rate also tends to bring out a dog eat dog shop atmosphere where techs are fighting for the gravy jobs that they can make extra time on. I have heard all kinds of stories of techs sucking up to Service Managers to get better jobs or bribing Service Writers to ensure the good jobs are assigned to them. This is the kind of drama you just don’t need.

If considering a flat rate job here are questions you need to ask before taking the job:

  • How busy is the shop?
  • What is their policy if the shop isn’t busy? (some shops, not most, will guarantee a minimum number of hours per week regardless of how many jobs get done, this takes out the risk of Flat rate)
  • How are jobs distributed?
  • How many hours per week are your average technicians earning?

Ongoing Costs

Most careers involve very few ongoing costs, but mechanics are expected to pay for their own tools and many are also responsible for annual licensing/certification fees, insurance and uniforms.

Tools are the big one, for a time I used to ask every tech I met what their tools were worth, it was usually between $20,000 – $50,000 but it wasn’t a shock to hear from guys who had been in the trade for a while that they had amassed over $100k in tools.

Many shops do provide a tool allowance but that is usually capped at about $1,000/year and on average techs are going to spend about $300/month on tools. The cost of tools can be huge, I recommend starting with more generic tool sets (Mastercraft in Canada and Craftsman in the USA are good enough to get started with) and replacing them with higher end tools as you go. I hear from too many techs that owe their whole pay check to the Snap on guy.

Other things to budget for:

  • Trade Certification/Licensing
    • In Canada most Provinces have an annual fee to retain your trade certification
    • In the USA, if you have ASE certifications, these need to be renewed to be valid
  • Uniforms
    • Many shops provide uniforms but not all of them, make sure you ask before you take on a new job if this is supplied
    • Laundry, if you are responsible for cleaning your own uniforms you will want to bring these to a laundry mat as they can do a number on a laundry machine
  • Insurance
    • Health Insurance/Benefits
    • Consider getting additional insurance covering your hand as if you suffer a serious injury your career may be over

Physical Costs

One of the biggest pieces of advice that I routinely give to technicians is that “You want to get off the floor before you have to get off the floor.” Mechanic work is very physically demanding, the longer you are in the trade, the better chance there is that you have back or knee issues. Work smartly when you are on the job and know when to get off of it. Not everyone is cut out for a life as a Supervisor or Manager but Mechanics can also transition to make great Parts Techs or Service Writers. Make the move to get off the tools before you have to. You don’t want to end up being the guy that has to retire before you can afford to and spends the rest of his life hobbling around.

Working Conditions

Not all shops are created the same. Before accepting any job ask for a shop tour. If the shop looks unsafe, it doesn’t matter how much they are paying, walk away. Look for things like proper ventilation, hoists, overhead cranes etc.

Know what you are going to be working on, Diesel Mechanics can mean an on highway truck but it could also mean garbage trucks. Those things are nasty, with maggots falling on you while you work. Big thanks for all the guys that do work on waste trucks, you are the real hero’s.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I still think that a career in mechanics is an amazing job but it is not all grassy fields and unicorns. Consider the above points before taking on any new job in the trade. If you are looking for a new job contact Rockstar Mechanics to look into new opportunities or have a look at our Job Board.

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1 thought on “What They Don’t Tell You in Trade School”

  1. Richard Smith

    Very good info. One clarification. Ontario is the only province that charges techs the annual fee. Being in the industry, as a tech and an instructor for 30 years , and living in 4 provinces I have talked to a lot of junior techs and the comment of “cash grab” comes up quite often.

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