Some findings of a survey on collision repair technicians didn't surprise D.J. Shepherd, manager of the Dub Miller Ford body shop in Rosenberg, TX, near Houston.

The survey of 400 independent and dealership collision repair shops around the country found that the average age of body shop technicians is rising. Mr. Shepherd says most of his shop's 13 employees are in their mid-40s or older.

The survey also found that shop employee benefits are improving. Dub Miller Ford just added a 401(k) retirement plan this year, Mr. Shepherd says.

The survey found, too, that the average income for body shop technicians over 20 years old is $41, 268, not far off from what Mr. Shepherd's techs average.

But two findings from the survey did surprise Mr. Shepherd. They were that the average technician income has risen steadily the past six years — yet turnover of employees in the industry also is increasing.

“Maybe it's because we're in an outlying area, but we just don't have much turnover,” Mr. Shepherd says. “But when I came into this industry in the 1970s, the service labor rate was $9 an hour and $8 an hour for the body shop. Now it's $70 an hour for service and about half that for the body shop.

“Mechanics are making $20 an hour and the body men are getting $12 a flat-rate hour. I think we're going to continue to lose technicians until these men can make more than they're making.”

The non-profit I-CAR Education Foundation, which conducted the survey, was created a decade ago solely to address the shortage of qualified collision repair technicians. This year's survey was I-CAR's third in six years. That allows for trend spotting.

“From 1995 to 1998, we saw about a 11% increase in the average technician income, and from 1998 to 2001 about another 9%,” says Ron Ray, executive director of the foundation. “So it's keeping up with the cost of living or inflation.”

Mr. Ray says technicians' pay widely varies. The top 10% of the nearly 1,900 technicians represented in the survey earned about $72,000 on average.

The latest survey also found more shops offering such benefits as paid vacations (more than 80%), health insurance (more than 60%), retirement packages (more than 30%) and paid tuition for training (more than 25%).

“Back in 1995, about 20% of the workforce received none of these benefits,” Mr. Ray says. “Now it's less than 10% a short six years later.”

But more technicians are leaving for other jobs within the industry or leaving the industry entirely.

About one in four technicians switched shops in the 12 months prior to the survey findings, a 3% increase over 1995. And more than 24,000 technicians — about 11% of the workforce — left the trade, higher than the 9.4% reported in 1998.

The number of new technicians being hired from vocational training schools continues to hover at about 5,000 — leaving more than 18,000 other openings that must be filled from other sources, says Mr. Ray.

He says one way to address the technician shortage is to communicate to young people and their parents the earning potential of technicians in the industry. Even just the average technician income of $41,000 is higher than that of other trades, such as carpenters, truck drivers, welders and medical lab technicians, Mr. Ray says.

Keeping current technicians working in the industry longer into their careers is also critical, he notes.

Ronnie Hill, body shop manager at Green Gifford Chrysler-Jeep in Norfolk, VA, agrees. That's why he tries to move young employees originally hired to wash and detail cars into body shop apprentice positions.

“That brings new people into the industry, while giving an experienced technician a way to make some money based on what he knows, not just what he does,” Mr. Hill says. “This is tough work. I know, because I was a painter here for 41 years. An older technician might not be as fast as he once was, but helping train someone new is a way for him to help keep his income up.”

The apprentices start off being paid an hourly wage for a month or two to see if it's something they want and can do, says Mr. Hill. Then they are switched to a flat rate pay similar to, but lower than, experienced technicians. The technician training them receives some compensation for each flat rate hour of labor the apprentice completes.

“Once that apprentice is ready to work on his own, I think he should continue working ‘for’ his trainer for two or three months to kind of pay him back for the time he's spent training,” Mr. Hill says.

He says that in addition to good benefits and wages — his nine techs average about $60,000 annually — extra time off is appreciated. If the shop is running on schedule for its workload, technicians can take a two-hour lunch on Friday paydays.

Mr. Shepherd agrees flexibility of work hours is becoming more critical in recruiting and retaining technicians.

For a more detailed version, call (888) 722-3787, ext. 283. John Yoswick is a freelance writer based in Portland, OR.