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James Stanfill: It's about more than a paycheck

Published August 8, 2019

By James Stanfill

James Stanfill is the President of the Professional Bicycle Mechanics Association and the founder of A Better Bike Biz

I've probably spoken about it before somewhere online, and I guarantee that if anyone asked me in person, I have said it to him or her directly: the PBMA is not a union. The PBMA is not out fighting to increase wages.

The cycling industry is slowly waking up, slowly realizing that the bicycle shop is more than just a place where people buy bicycles. Slowly realizing that those "grease monkeys" who they used to hide in the backroom are perhaps their most valuable asset.

For the folks behind the scenes at the PBMA and since day one, we have never said, "we need to fix wages." What we did discuss was a mission, a mission critical to the things we each valued. A mission which, in time, would impact the future.

That mission is, and has been: to Promote, Develop and Advocate on behalf of the Professional Bicycle Mechanic.

We meet these mission goals by constantly talking about the importance of having a well-trained and qualified (call it professional) mechanic. Right now, and for the last three years, we have been doing that within our industry. We created a professional development and educational conference (PBMA Technical Workshops) to fill a void of training and education that had disappeared. We work with various events and organizations to ensure that the bicycle mechanic is celebrated (you might recall the Mechanics Challenge at Interbike).

When the industry adopts a similar ideal of basic mission goals, we can all accomplish great things together. Presently, it doesn't seem like many are celebrating. We can't really celebrate fewer bicycle units being sold — in basic terms, that just equates to fewer people on bicycles. Should we really celebrate that even though fewer units are being sold, the dollar value is up? Is it truly that people are buying more expensive bikes, or just a complex mathematical equation of passing the buck?

The PBMA is celebrating mechanics. We would sure LOVE for there to be successful bicycle shops in every community and, in the communities that can support it, many successful shops that benefit each other through healthy retail competition. We are celebrating the fact that, regardless of where the retail whirlwind lands, bicycle mechanics will still be a healthy part of the ecosystem.

What we know is that if a business values what it is doing, understands how retail is changing, and has a grasp on the concept of true profit and loss, that business will succeed and likely grow. Mechanics need places to work, but they also need to live.

I don't think it's fair to expect a mechanic to live on minimum wage. I do think it's fair to pay a person a fair wage, taking into account the complexity of their scope of work and the cost of living in any given area. We have been up against it before; owners and managers wondering how to pay their mechanics more.

I don't feel that anyone is purposefully holding back mechanics' wages; our entire cycling ecosystem just doesn't presently support bolstering them to realistic levels. A service manager's scope of work likely includes a rather broad understanding of the technical nature of bicycles, the ability to manage a schedule, the ability to manage people, and tact in customer service among many other things. This person deserves a true professional wage with professional benefits.

Start there, and trickle it down to your lowest level mechanic, and begin to think about and make the changes necessary before you (and we) lose them to something that offers them more.

To raise the value of the bicycle mechanic means that we ALL need to raise the value of the bicycle. That goes for everyone in this industry who just nods their head when anyone else they know says "well, they are just toys." I know some important people read these pieces when I am lucky enough to have them published so to you I say:

Change the narrative. Bicycles in big box retailers shouldn't be sold in the toy aisle. If you want to be part of this industry, these things aren't toys to us and as such shouldn't be to you and shouldn't be allowed to be to your retailers.

If you, the industry, and those in retail want to keep battling big box, go ahead. I mean, KMART is gone right? How many bicycle sales do you think the local bicycle shop lost to KMART over the years? Better yet, think of how many bicycle sales are you still losing to (that's right, you can still buy bicycles online from KMART). Regardless, the bicycles sold equal money in our cycling industry pocket. Who is keeping those millions of bicycles running? We are ... bicycle shops, employing bicycle mechanics.

Plenty complain about the poor assembly in these large markets; not our problem, but it is our reward. Our problem is that we have accepted the status quo; we have not done enough to differentiate ourselves. We have not stood up and said, "well, no, my friend, bicycles are machines, not toys." If you really want to piss someone off, call their golf clubs "toys" ...

At the end of the day, if we as industry don't unite around the things we can fully control, we will lose our business to automakers and motorcycle manufacturers. They already all have plenty of successful retail outlets, they all have full service shops, they are only missing the bicycle specialist ... now is the time for us to stand up, prove our value as bicycle shops.

Be honest with yourself and your staff, know and examine your business numbers, adjust to what is happening in real time (not what happened from last years market report). If we can do this, we will all win, including the mechanics and their wages.


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