Are repairers unhappy?

Jan. 1, 2020
According to a scientific study exploring job satisfaction and personal happiness among American occupations, workers in the automotive repair industry tend to fall below the national average in how happy they are with their lives. Repairers' scores

Researchers report low personal happiness scores among industry workforce

According to a scientific study exploring job satisfaction and personal happiness among American occupations, workers in the automotive repair industry tend to fall below the national average in how happy they are with their lives. Repairers' scores are less than half what others report, lower than prison guards, janitors and a host of other jobs.

Although the research may raise more questions than it answers, the level of personal unhappiness may shed new light on the industry's difficulties with employee recruitment and retention — and what's discussed during Career Day at the local high school.

These attitudes could also be surfacing in on-the-job technical mistakes, customer service lapses, employee turnover rates and accelerated workplace tension. The situation is exacerbated as aging baby boomers retire and their offspring opt out of continuing in the family business, a malaise that appears to go beyond the oft-stated notion that "the kids these days don't want to get their hands dirty."

Across all occupations, on average, 47 percent of the massive study's participants say they are "very satisfied" with their jobs and 33.3 percent say they are personally "very happy." The information was obtained in face-to-face interviews by researchers conducting the General Social Survey (GSS) for the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center.

"People's feelings about their work usually have a significant impact on their happiness," says study director Dr. Tom W. Smith, noting how this measure can include "everything from your job, your marriage and your personal relations."

Only 16.4 percent of auto body repairers say they are personally very happy, while just 23.7 percent of auto mechanics attain the very happy level. Both segments fall far below the 33.3 percent all-occupational benchmark. Sales workers, including those selling auto parts, fare better with a 29.5 percent very happy rating. (The study's assigned job titles reflect official U.S. Census Bureau designations.)

Automotive "job satisfaction" scores trend higher, raising the possibility that the industry could simply be populated with people who are personally unhappy. Going to work may represent a respite in an otherwise unpleasant existence, although such a definitive conclusion remains uncertain.

"These results suggest that their jobs are a greater source of well-being than life as a whole," says Smith.

Americans across all occupations report an average job satisfaction rate of 47 percent. Auto body repairers come in at 41.5 percent; 47.8 percent of mechanics say they are very satisfied, with auto parts sales people posting a 51.3 percent rating. Not a bad showing, according to Smith, particularly when compared with the lower personal happiness numbers.

Those in the "garage and service station-related occupations" category are at rock bottom in the personal happiness rankings at 13 percent. Job satisfaction only is a glum 16.2 percent. Among all occupations, personal happiness is 33.3 percent and job satisfaction is 47 percent.

Members of the clergy are No. 1 on both the personally happy and job-satisfied scores, followed by firefighters. Smith said "prestige" plays a key role on how these people view themselves, based in part on the respect they garner by having these titles.

While Smith stresses that he has limited knowledge of automotive repair issues, it could be that industry-applied titles such as technician and counterman run counter to effective recruiting and retention. The skill sets one must have to perform these functions may warrant a different label in relation to self-esteem concepts. And this element is not necessarily tied to pay raises, either.

Redefining an occupation

Smith says there are several basic approaches for increasing job satisfaction:

  • improve working conditions;
  • reward workers more; and
  • redefine an occupation as a specialty or profession.

Business owners eager for a more productive and pleasant — or shall we say happier — work environment may want to consider switching back to the "mechanic" moniker and adopting into common usage "parts management professional" and "collision repair specialist" or other similar prestige-enhancing designations.

Maintaining a suitable work force has been a consistent challenge, said Barry Dorn, vice chairman of the Society of Collision Repair Specialists (SCRS). Training and business management concerns remain important issues.

"The problem starts from the beginning," he says. "Older techs started with little to no guidance, just the passion and will to work independently. We all know what happens with little-to-no-management or instruction: Bad morale, 'rumor mill agendas' and 'I-do-it-my-way' mentalities."

Dorn said that the way most technicians are paid also adds to the problems of self-esteem.

"Commission and flat rate pay plans create many 'sub-contractors' in your shop," he says. "Add in unrealistic timelines, unrecognizable pay plans, unorganized shops and poor communication and you have a recipe of disaster."

The GSS, supported by the National Science Foundation, has been conducted since 1972.

"Unlike opinion polls, which ask people about topics related to current events, the GSS captures changes in opinion to issues that remain of enduring importance in society," Smith says.

"The survey is the most comprehensive of its kind to explore satisfaction and happiness among American workers. The GSS asks a large variety of questions of a representative sample of Americans in face-to-face interviews. In the 1988 to 2006 GSS surveys, interviewers asked people how satisfied they were with their jobs," he reports. The interviewers also asked them about their general level of happiness, and Smith correlated those general happiness findings with the jobs people held.

With the exception of the bottom-ranked garage and service station-related occupations category, automotive occupations are not specifically discussed in the published version, which covers the top and bottom 12 rankings of each category.

Paying the piper

One industry executive who wishes to remain anonymous says of the study: "The industry is really hurting right now. Work is down and very scattered, leaving one to question what the income will look like over the winter months — especially with heating costs and driving costs going up even higher," he says.

"The raises have been very few, if at all, simply because with a supply and demand situation, insurers are able to pit one shop against another and so whoever can work the cheapest will get another morsel of food to keep them open for maybe another few days. Frankly, it sucks," says the executive, who owns a body shop.

"Fair and reasonable increases have not happened and therefore the work and income outlook will start to dissipate, which means less people coming into the industry at a time when more people will be leaving the industry. The piper will be paid and consumers and insurers will understand the impact of their short-term savings efforts. This turnaround will hurt us all, but it will happen when the pendulum returns and it will," the executive predicts.

"Our image is a two-fold situation: Those in the industry that view themselves and each other as less than desirable people simply because of their job, and then the way they are viewed by consumers helps to perpetuate and ends up reinforcing what the employees already think of themselves. A lose, lose situation."

Cultivating and nurturing

According to Chuck Sulkala, executive director of the National Auto Body Council (NABC), the organization "is working hard to try and change the image of this industry, not only in the quality of work performed aspect, but also in the value and worth of the technicians who make these repairs possible."

He points out that "it is a skilled craftsman that can do this work and often under difficult and timely constraints that only add more pressure to do it right the first time as inexpensively as possible. Room for error does not exist."

The personal happiness issue is yet another challenge.

"This whole scenario simply adds to stress, which adds to frustration and questioning the satisfaction level of the current job one has. While I find the report troubling, it also confirms that our efforts are needed now as much as ever before," Sulkala says.

"A business is nothing without their employees and a good business realizes and nurtures those employees. When that happens, more good employees with great self-respect will want to work there — and so the cycle goes on," he says. "The less-satisfied and those with less self-worth will slide to work for someone who cares less about them, only further perpetuating the belief that they are not deserving of any self-worth. What a shame: Once again the separation between the haves and the have-nots.

"I believe we can get better and we can help our employees understand their worth to the consumer, but this effort will require insurers to seek out where they have contributed to this result, and repairers will need to take a self-examination as well," Sulkala says. "Quality, satisfied workers don't just happen, they are cultivated and nurtured and appreciated. Perhaps we all should take a look at where we too may have fallen short in our responsibility as well, especially since all of us rely on this industry for our livelihood."

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