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James Stanfill: If ever there was a time

Published September 15, 2020

By James Stanfill

In one of the many Facebook groups I am a part of I often see complaints: They can’t keep the good mechanics, can’t find good mechanics, can’t afford to pay more … I think complaints like that warrant more.

A good employee is worth their weight in gold. If you can’t say that you are paying your best employees enough to purchase a house or retire on, then why are you in business? There is this ‘passionate’ thing that exists amongst store owners and employees but passion does not replace wages.

On the professional race circuit there are people who literally volunteer their time just to say they got to be at a race like the Tour of California … for every volunteer, someone who was actually qualified didn’t make any money that week.

The bicycle industry put itself in a poor position to pay employees sometime long ago. Labor rates remained nearly steady for something like 10 years while the cost of living and doing business continued to rise.

If you can’t say that you are paying your best employees enough to purchase a house or retire on, then why are you in business? 

There are some shops doing very well, paying employees a true living wage, retirement, health benefits and more … if you look at their business model their service rates are high, really high. Is it really that hard of a conversation to your customers to say that a tune-up is now $100 instead of $75? Can’t you come up with some reason to justify a $25 increase … even the everyday run-of-the-mill standard work tickets have a line item for shop supplies … they get it.

Now the complaints" "if we raise our prices they will just go to another shop where labor is cheaper." I will remind everyone who has read this far: cheaper is not always better. If your customers (the ones who come back) are that easily swayed, you might want to look inside at your customer service skills. They aren’t just leaving to save a dollar, they are leaving to save money and perhaps find a better experience. If you can offer an amazing experience then you will win every time.

Back to the point — finding and keeping good mechanics. Guess what? We lost them all to other industries or to their own independent operations and we failed miserably at making more. The PBMA put together some amazing training opportunities, then we had to cancel them, partly because people just weren’t coming in big enough numbers. There were those who knew it all, didn’t need to learn anymore, and the others, well, nobody stressed the importance of “learning how to do it right” to them.

The pandemic has shown us that people who own bicycles keep them. Basic replacement parts have run out at most suppliers. Those bicycles have been buried in storage, garages, sheds, and sometimes just out by the tree in the backyard. A good mechanic and business owner sees money when they see these golden treasures. Those with less experience just replace the parts, do the tune-up and send the customer on their way … thus this massive shortage of shifters … THEY ARE REPAIRABLE and it doesn’t take any longer … two screws off then pick your method of flushing them out.

Did we teach people how to repair old shifters at our workshops? Absolutely not.  We taught them how to work on the latest and greatest, how to properly set up a tubeless tire instead of trying to slam some Gorilla Tape into a wheel that the customer is only going to have trouble with, forever.

The people who have been around a long while should be showing your newer mechanics how do to these things: it should be part of their job. The newer mechanics should be asking those with experience how do to things: it should be part of their desire to learn. The business owners and managers should be encouraging and supporting their staff to gain the knowledge needed to support the business goals.

A great mechanic isn’t going to fall into your lap and when you meet one you’d better be prepared to have some honest conversations with that person. Talk to them about your business sure, talk to them about the job, sure … most importantly talk to them about the expectation, ask them what they plan to do to affect the profits at your location and provide them with an incentive package that makes sense with the true cost of living where you call home.

You can’t expect your staff to commute an hour for $18 per hour, it’s not a fair ask. You might say, “but I do it” and that’s on you. You can’t complain when nobody will come work for you in the most expensive cities in our country unless you are offering a truly fair wage that is appropriate for a person to be there. You can’t expect staff to rely on their spouse for the head-of-household income.

We are an industry; these jobs for many are a career. It’s time we all started acting like it within and without. Charge what your business is worth; work with brands and companies that offer the margin that can sustain your business while also helping you grow. Find good people and make it worth their while to be there.

Right now a mechanic can get a job nearly anywhere, so you’d better be offering something special to catch a good one. For most it isn’t simply about money, but money is important and hard. Have the conversations and ask the questions to find the best people for your business and its profitability. A good employee is truly worth their weight in gold.

Stanfill is president of the Professional Bicycle Mechanics Association.

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