The motor trade is suffering from a lack of regulation. How has it got to this point and what needs to change?
Jimi Donohoe, Chair, Unite Mechanics Branch: Motor mechanics were once held in high esteem and valued as skilled workers but over time that has changed. I spoke to an old stalwart whom I worked alongside during my apprenticeship recently and he recounted how “blessed” he was to get an apprenticeship to become a mechanic when he finished school back in 1958. I remember an old black and white photograph he showed me when I was serving my time and it was of him and his workmates standing proudly outside the workshop. Cars were still a commodity back then, a luxury only a well-off family could afford. The novelty of owning a vehicle would have shaped a different picture of mechanics than the one we are familiar with today.
Before the computer age mechanics would have been at the forefront of technology. A car would have been the most expensive and technologically advanced possession a family could own. Somehow in the years since, the public perception of mechanics has become a negative one. We are all familiar with the term ‘grease monkey’ and a recent Irish Times article reduced the trade to a ‘bit of spanner twirling’. The public doesn’t trust their mechanic in the same way they trust their electrician or plumber. The public is always fearful that they are being ripped off by their mechanic. Aside from our house, a car is still our highest costing possession and the technology that goes into a vehicle still advances at a rapid pace, this means a lot of skill is required in our trade. Yet the public perception of mechanics has become negative which has knock-on effects on those working in the trade.
There are some differences among the trades that can’t be ignored. For a start, electricians and plumbers tend to be organised in unions. Why aren’t mechanics unionised? Mechanics are more isolated than other trades. Where a building site could have upwards of 100 plumbers or electricians, all mingling and discussing issues on the job, and organising, while a large garage is one with perhaps ten mechanics employed. They haven’t traditionally had the means to communicate across different garages and discuss common issues facing the trade.
They have also historically been seen by some unions as too difficult to organise and not worth the effort. Modern communication has allowed us to overcome some of the difficulties in trying to organise mechanics but the inability of mechanics to organise before this point is only one part of the story.
Employers in the motor trade have been very well organised since 1968. Before this time there was two groups representing employers in the motor industry. Most of that time has been spent lobbying the government on reducing taxes for the motor industry while ignoring the trade of motor mechanics and its problems. The influence of the employers’ representative cannot be understated. They represent over 1200 motor-related businesses in Ireland which include the main dealers we are all familiar with. There is also a cross over in high-level staff between the large dealerships and the group representing employers. What have they done to improve the image of the motor trade? The problem is they have done nothing, and in fact, they facilitate the low opinion of mechanics. The result is that there are no standards in the trade. It will come as a surprise to many people that their mechanic is not required to possess any qualification before working on a customers vehicle. Anybody who feels like it can open a garage in their shed and begin servicing and repairing vehicles for customers without any oversight.
A lack of standards leads to another problem. Employers can employ cheap and unqualified staff to work in their workshops and carry out the work that only a qualified mechanic should be doing. Shockingly, reports suggest that it is some of the biggest and most influential dealerships in the industry that are employing cheap and unqualified labour. It is therefore in their interest to maintain the status quo and by holding the balance of power within the industry the practice is unlikely to change. Small independent garage owners, who take pride in their work, will not support the practice and may push for change from within the group, but they may find they are pushing against a closed door.
This is why Unite Mechanics have begun a campaign to regulate the motor trade. Many young apprentices get into the trade because they are passionate about cars but they become disgruntled with the poor pay and conditions. Motor mechanics are the lowest-paid among the recognised trades in Ireland. The pay rate for apprentice mechanics was last adjusted in 2008 on the advice of the group representing employers in the trade. Electrical apprentices had their salary reviewed in 2019. It has led to a shortage of mechanics in the trade. The most talented are poached by the big tech companies to maintain their data centres because their skills are easily transferrable. Similarly, prospective mechanics turn to the other trades because there are better financial rewards.
If the motor trade wants to heal itself it has to become regulated. Regulation will raise the standards across the trade. Quality of workmanship will improve by cutting out those who haven’t received adequate training. Regulation is more urgently required when the hazards associated with working on electric vehicles and their increase in popularity is considered. Environmental and safety standards will also improve as there will be greater oversight. The general public cannot legally service the gas boiler in their house or wire up the house, yet despite 149 road deaths last year, anyone can service a car.
Public confidence in mechanics will improve as the standards are raised. The modern mechanic is an electrician, a plumber and an IT technician. They are highly skilled and they are required to keep up with the constantly evolving technology. They are required to spend thousands on tools, comparably, a lot more than other trades. They don’t receive tool allowances despite employers taking most of the financial benefit from mechanic’s spending money on tools that make the employer more profitable. A regulated trade will help alleviate the shortage of mechanics by making it an attractive trade again.
With regulation, mechanics could regain their pride and a decent wage. To ensure the latter mechanics need to be leading the conversation. Regulation would benefit genuine businesses too, as many independent garage owners report that they are being undercut by businesses in their vicinity employing unqualified staff and poaching customers. The risk is if mechanics don’t lead the conversation that regulation will not benefit them. Regulation will improve business for most garages but it is not guaranteed that the financial benefits will trickle down to mechanics. Neither should regulation become a money racket that puts more financial burden on mechanics. Mechanics want their trade certificate to mean more than the paper it comes on. Employers need to be forced to comply with standards and sanctions need to be put in place for non-compliance. This is why mechanics need to make sure their voice is heard. The only way that they can make that happen is if they come together. Unite Mechanics are already on the road but we need mechanics to support us by joining us. Let’s make it a proud and rewarding trade again.