Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Jingle-Jangle Of Being A Bicycle Mechanic

Workin' It! Keep Workin' It!
I came across this "slide share" which was about the average salaries for bicycle mechanics across the United States. Okay, if you aren't in to clicking links, the slide show reveals that bicycle mechanics make, on average, about $22,337.00. The article poses the question- "why?"

I've been a bicycle mechanic off and on again since 1993. In between I was an auto mechanic for 5 and a half years. I've seen both sides of that. I was also in retail for 17 years before all of that. So, all that to say that I've learned a thing or three over the years.

In my opinion, the answer to the slide share's question of "why" bicycle mechanics don't get paid more is a complex one. There are no simple answers. However; I am going to pull a few bullet points from my experiences and knowledge which I hope will point to a few answers to this.
  • Bike Mechanics Don't Do It For The Money: While this may seem like some altruistic, pie in the sky philosophic bull dookey, it has a double meaning. Yes- there are a few mechanics that just love working with their hands, love bicycles, and are willing to suffer getting paid less than a high school drop out. Then there are those who are willing to submit to the low wages to get the deals on parts and complete bikes. So, yeah......it works both ways! 
  • People Do Not See Bicycles As Essential To Life When I worked on automobiles, I often was the one that had to "break the bad news" to clients in the waiting room. The utter fear, the blank stares, and feeble cries of helplessness, (yes- really) were shocking to me at first. Then I realized that without their cars, people's lives completely came unhinged. They couldn't function without it. They would pay anything to get it back running again in most cases. Bicycles? Not so much. Bicycles are non-essential toys- recreational amusements on the way to dinner and drinks later. A way to get to the coffee shop. If it is broken? Ehhh! Well, if it doesn't cost too much to fix, maybe.....
  • Shop Owners Aren't Killing It Like You Might Think: Ever see a bike shop owner living in a ritzy neighborhood or driving a fancy car? (Okay- maybe once in a while that happens!) Trust me- the shop owners I know are doing "okay", but they aren't pulling down wads of cash and bilking consumers like some innergoogle forum nut jobs may make you think. Bike retail is some of the lowest margin business one could get into that I've been around. 
  • Since Shop Owners Are Making So Much Cash- They Pay Mechanics Like Kings: (<===HA!) Obviously, if you payed attention to the above, you know that this is purely sarcasm. 
  • Consumers Get What Shop Owners Can Pay For: There are endless bitch sessions and nightmare stories about bad shop mechanics and retail experiences. I agree that there is a lot of room for improvement, but there is also the fact that you, as a consumer, are getting what shops can afford. Generally speaking, that is a very transient, under-trained, under-skilled workforce. Most do not have much, if any, retail experience. And let me tell ya- working retail, and doing it well, is a darn tough thing to master. (Not to mention wrenching) Some few are endowed with the proper skill set, but most often, the high school/college kid you see at a bike shop has almost zero idea of what to do from a sales and/or mechanics standpoint, and the shops generally can't spend the time/money to train them up when that "investment" leaves in a few years or less. So......you get what got paid for. 

That's just a couple of things I can think of, but it goes beyond that. I can only speak for myself when I say that being a bicycle mechanic is a good job, and I like it, but the pay isn't good. It just is not. Heck, I made more money working retail in 1988 than I did last year, as an example.

But I am not complaining either. I wish bicycle mechanics like myself and all the others out there could make more money, sure. Why wouldn't I? But I also am very grateful for the job I have for its flexibility, the opportunity it allows me to work with my hands, and for being able to hang around bicycles on a regular basis. I have met some of the finest folks I have ever met in any job through being a shop mechanic. It is by far the most satisfying job I've had in my life. No- it does not pay all that well. But that's par for the course.

Should bicycle mechanics get paid more? Probably, yes- they should. However, I feel it will take a fundamental change in the view of what bicycles are worth to the average American before it starts to change, and I do not foresee that happening anytime soon.


Fivos Andonopoulos said...

All I can say is that I know a large amount of super-skilled EX mechanics that just got tired of low wages, no vacation, working every weekend, no paid holidays, no insurance. They have moved on to better jobs and wrench on the side. And, they get to ride their bikes!!!

Guitar Ted said...

@ Fivos Andonopoulos- Right! That's just it- If the wages don't attract the good mechanics, the void is filled with sub-par, under-trained ones. I don't know what the solution to that is, but I can say that I do know the American public is not ready for tune-up prices that are double the going rate they are today!

In the meantime, it might be good for the shop owners to do whatever they can to accommodate the good mechanics they do have, or risk watching them move on to higher rungs on the bicycling industry ladder, or lose them to other professions. As a for instance- I took a $7,000.00 a year pay cut when I quit working on cars and went to being a bicycle mechanic again. I had my reasons, but many would not be able to absorb that kind of hit in income.

MG said...

I think a contributing factor is the lack of real credentials for trained, qualified mechanics. While we have Barnett's or BTI, they don't carry the same weight as something like an ASE Certification for an auto mechanic. Having a testable 'standard' to aspire to should make legitimate wrenches a more in-demand commodity.

Guitar Ted said...

@MG: Yes, I have seen that solution bandied about after the appearance of the slide share I reference to. I would have to disagree with that idea though, and here is why-

While certification of mechanics in a nationwide, easily checked and respected system is an admirable goal, it all comes down to the nuts and bolts of economics. Just because I have accredited credentials from some highly respected bicycle mechanics school, (be that a real or mythical one at this point), does not guarantee a higher pay scale for me as a mechanic. (Just ask any of the thousands of college graduates with degrees that are working far under their accredited skill levels)

The bottom line is that the money is not there. Shop owners would by necessity need to raise labor prices dramatically, and in a flat market, that ain't gonna happen. Not until, as I said at the end of my post, Americans see value in paying shop mechanics more for their skill set.

Accredited and licensed mechanics are a good idea, don't get me wrong, but it will only incrementally increase wages, and it will make qualified mechanics even more scarce, because shop owners would most likely try getting by without licensed/accredited mechanics in order to keep expenses down. Margins in the industry being what they are, and as I say- the market is not growing.

matt said...

As a continuation to the "bikes not essential to life" reason - consider what happens when there's a serious failure from lack of maintenance on a car vs. bike. If you have bad brakes on your car you have serious problems and a consequence is potentially much more expensive than fixing the brakes; on a bike you just brake a little earlier and avoid the 20+ mph downhills with a stop sign at the bottom (don't ask how I know this).

I recently had my bike tuned up and while it wasn't cheap, relative to a vehicle tune-up it was. And I just love having a smooth running drivetrain with everything adjusted.


robvrstgh said...

being a bike mechanic was the best job i ever had...but paid the worst of any job i've ever had. sadly, the bike is far more complex then the general population will recognize. for consumers, paying high dollar to maintain a cheap bike (i.e. a TOY) is a ridiculous thought. conversely, folks buying the high-end of the bike spectrum don't feel like anything should every go WRONG with their bikes...and when it does, it should be fixed for free (i see the higher-end shops i deal with paying almost a full-time mechanics wage to someone just to keep up with tubular re-glue, shifting adjustment, warranty snafus, etc, for their customers).

finding a mechanic that can adjust your electronic shifting, tune your suspension and overhaul your 2-speed kickback is almost a thing of the past. and that's a bummer.

MG said...

@Guitar Ted -- I agree with you on that point, but also hear a lot of folks (like Rob) bemoan the lack of qualified mechanics. And I think that's legitimate. But it's not just mechanics, finding legitimate shops that truly understand cycling from a cyclists perspective is increasingly hard in and of itself. There are a lot of factors contributing to this... And some of it has to do with the "do it yourself" nature of cyclists themselves. Whether it's right or wrong, Shimano sells more DI2 derailleurs when ham fisted home mechanics get a hold of 'em. And I'm sure they aren't bemoaning the bump in "idiot sales".

It speaks, as noted, to a general lack of respect for the skill, finesse and grace with which a seasoned bicycle mechanic does his or her job. And that's sad, because most of us reading this understand the value of a great mechanic, and how much a perfectly-functioning bike adds to the experience.

Cheers friends,

Patrick Dowd said...

I also think the fact that working on a bike is easier than a car (not saying that a good mechanic is like watching beautiful art, but let's face it, a lot can be done at a community shop). Plus things like smog checks, check engine lights, etc. are basically gimmes for auto-mechanic shops, which bike shops don't have (there is no 15,000 mile red light that costs 300 bucks to get diagnosed)(also, I have no idea how much car repair actually costs).

Mauricio Babilonia said...

There's no compelling economic reason to certify bicycle mechanics because the consequence of mechanical failure on a bike is so small compared to that of a motor vehicle.

I do as much as I can on my bikes because the average person can't really work on their own car anymore, and I need to satisfy the urge to own my stuff. Really own it—lock stock and chainring bolts.

Still, there are things that I'm not equipped to handle, and I happily pay my local shop to do those tasks. That's a minority view though, and I very much doubt that the lot of the average LBS wrench will change much until our dear country recovers a bit from its unhealthy obsession with the horseless carriage.

MG said...

@ Mauricio Babilonia, you must be kidding... The consequences of an improperly built wheel, or a carbon fiber handlebar that's been improperly installed (tightened just a little too tight), can not just be harmful, they can be fatal. I don't see how the consequence is any less for a cyclist than a driver, in this case. Clearly you don't have a solid grasp of the situation here...

Mauricio Babilonia said...

@MG, with due respect, I have as much of a grip of the situation as anyone here.

Look, say it's minor. If the motor fails on a car, it's a tow and a ride home by other means; if the chain breaks on a bike, it's a ride home in a car, usually with the bike. Quite a difference in cost and inconvenience.

A major problem, analogous to your bike example, like the failure of brakes or some suspension component on a car is a much different animal, especially at speed. Mass times velocity squared equals exponentially more mayhem, especially if you're in the now-uncontrolled car's path. Maybe the car is a Cadillac Escalade or a Hummer H2.

The bottom line is, if a bike fails catastrophically, it really sucks for its rider. If a car fails catastrophically, it sucks for the operator and very likely for others as well. This is a fact not lost on governments or companies that insure motor vehicle mechanics.

NEAT Mike said...

Having worked in shops on and off for 20 years I've been in shops that were doing well and some that were ending up broke. The basic economics of shop ownership, LOW profit margins on most stuff, big expenses like payroll and rent prohibit owners from paying much. The decent shops are lucky to have a High School kid stay and return during the summers for a while. Then the training process starts all over. I've landed in a Teaching career so I still wrench in the summer because it's satisfying and keeps me in nice bike stuff. Some good points have been made here but let's not forget about that elephant in the room: Lost shop revenue due to internet sales. Because Joe Kid can work on his Stingray with some wrenches means that he can now shop from his couch and have it delivered for cheap. This leaves that local shop out of the picture. No wonder they make no money. Try ordering a new frame for your truck online and having it shipped...

jk4hn said...

Im just starting out as a mechanic and most everything youve written about resonates with me except for one point: that "flexibility" is a benefit of bike mechanic work. Where I work I can hardly negotiate an hour off at the end of a day due to the volume of work that needs to be done. Is this par for the course?

Guitar Ted said...

@jk4hn: At this time of the year, in the Northern Lattitudes, when Spring is here and Summer is coming?


Depending upon the shop, you may find you have to work extra hours. As they say here in the Mid-West, "Ya gotta make hay when the Sun shines".