Tools of tradition

Pay them now or pay yourself later! Believe it or not, it benefits your shop to buy your techs the tools they need. Here’s why.

Tradition is often cited as the reason certain processes exist, and, sometimes, the tradition makes sense. Other times, though, learning the reason the tradition started can make you roll on the floor with laughter.

For example, one of my favorite funny-tradition stories concerns a woman who always followed a recipe passed down through two generations of her family for cooking a delicious turkey. The recipe’s Step 3 stated, “Remove one leg.” The woman’s mother had always done it this way because her grandmother had always done it this way. After years of following the instructions, the woman pondered why removing a leg was so critical. So she called her mother to ask. “I don’t know,” the mother replied. “I never thought about it. Ask your grandmother.”

When the woman talked to the grandmother about removing the leg, the grandmother replied, “Dear, that was a note for me. With both legs on the bird, it wouldn’t fit into our small oven.”

Many trades, industries and professions have ways of doing things that have similarly obscure origins that are now out-of-date. In the automotive repair trade, one such tradition is that technicians provide most of their own tools, while the shop provides a workspace.

I believe that, in the future, this convention will change so that auto mechanics will be treated with the same respect as most other tradesmen. After all, shop owners already provide uniforms, service information and large-ticket equipment. Why not tools?

We issue a rolling cart, like this, to a newly hired technician. It has a Chromebook, all the basic hand tools and air-tools a tech will typically need to perform 98 percent of day-to-day jobs. The other 2 percent of tools are housed in our master toolbox and special tool rack along one wall of the shop, taking up some 30 linear feet of space.

A shop’s clients ultimately pay the owner’s overhead, and if you think about it, owners already pay for their employees’ tools. They pay their employees enough wages so that their employees can afford to buy and maintain their own tools, and this probably means they’re also paying a premium for the tools that wind up in their shop.

Ask one of your technicians if he’s bought tools that he’s only used once – and some not used at all. Odds are good, he will show you half a dozen. Check with your other techs, too, and see if any of them own any of these never-used tools. Odds are, you’ll get matches from some of them too.

The shop could have bought just one of those tools and kept it in a centrally located, community tool box. The extras just represent wasted money that either you, or a previous employer, spent. This represents a huge waste occuring at the technician level, which is great if you own the tool company. At a shop employing three techs, each getting paid $50,000 a year, the owner is likely spending $10,000-$12,000 per tech, in salary, per year that each of them can spend $5,000-$10,000 on personal tools, often times tools that will only be used once.

That’s $30,000-$36,000 per year! Paying the same three techs $45,000 a year, and supplying tools, equates to more money in the tech’s pocket and adds to the shop’s long-term bottom line.
The practice of supplying shop tools to techs is catching on fast in states with minimum-wage laws tied to employees who supply their own tools. In California, for example, shops have to pay two times the minimum wage to a first-day apprentice if the shop mandates the apprentice supply their own tools. This is not economically feasable.

Less than 2 percent of repairs require special tools. By standardizing which tools techs have in their cart and supplementing them with a complete selection of special tools, the shop’s money goes farther. Most shops already have a collection of special tools. The regular tools are the cheap investment.

Don’t expect to implement a program like that overnight. A lot of techs already have invested heavily in their own set of tools, and it’s still worth your while to keep them employed. But start planning for the future. Budget for shop tools now, and the next time you hire an entry-level tech, you’ll be able to set them up with a shop-supplied toolbox or cart.

To start acquiring a shop-tool collection, check with technicians who have retired from the trade. Often, a well-stocked tool box can be purchased for under $10,000 on Craigslist or eBay, and savvy shop owners should begin investing now.

Top shops in the future will opt to structure their operations so that they issue each employee a toolbox or rolling cart that contains the basic tools needed to perform day-to-day repairs, and then stock a central toolbox or room with the specialty tools techs will use less frequently. Employees will then come to work wearing employer-supplied uniforms and using employer-supplied tools.

You heard it here first!

Four Reasons to Buy the Tools

1 Quality Hiring. Many trades steal techs from the ranks of automotive repair professionals. But because an auto tech must have $10,000-$30,000 worth of tools to perform their duties, it’s difficult to cherry-pick the best people from other trades. Tool start-up costs are the biggest hurdle. If you provide your new hires with tools, though, you’ll have a larger pool of potential employees from which to hire entry-level technicians.
2 Employee retention. Early adopter shops, especially, will find it less likely an employee will leave their shop to go to another one and work as a tech, even if the other shop offers more money – unless, of course, the other shop offers to provide tools.
3 Happier employees. Many techs spend between $100 to $200 a week on a tool payment. In the case of low-tiered technicians, this could be 20-30 percent of their salary. By reducing the financial load on your employees, it should make their lives better. Happy employees generally produce a more reliable final product.
4 Reduce employee costs. It’s no secret that tools are cheaper than employees. If the shop is paying for tools, the shop can often pay the employees less, but the employee will net more money because they’re not making payments on the tools. Also, when you’ve bought the tools, the only further costs to you will be for loss, replacement or breakage. If your employees are reasonably responsible, this cost will be minimal.