While pandemic-related supply chain delays have eased, automotive repair shops are facing a looming crisis. Local professionals say the industry remains under a great deal of stress because of a shortage of technicians, high prices, lingering delays and increased demand.

This perfect storm of factors means that consumers are likely to pay more and wait longer to get their vehicle fixed.

In the auto service industry for a combined 55 years, Tim Parthemos, owner of Tim’s Garage in Strasburg, and Craig Belford, manager of Sterling Collision and Paint in Front Royal, offered some perspective on current challenges and anticipated difficulties ahead.

“This industry is sort of a dying breed as far as employees go,” said Belford, who has been in the auto repair industry for nearly 30 years. “There’s nobody really out there beating down the doors wanting to get into this career. I saw it coming 10 years ago. The good body man, good painters, good technicians at shops are 50, 55, 60 years old, and there’s nobody in their footsteps to take their places.”

According to a 2022 report from TechForce Foundation, a nonprofit that guides students into careers as professional technicians, the number of automotive technicians completing postsecondary training dropped by 34% from 2012 to 2021, with the largest one-year drop — 11.8% — from 2020 to 2021.

With baby boomers quickly aging out of the workforce and increased demand for repairs for older cars on the road as well as more accidents, the report projects that the United States may need more than 100,000 new technicians to join the workforce every year through 2026 for supply to keep up with demand.

“After COVID, everybody wanted to stay at home and get paid, the newer generation is more computer savvy. They do not want to get their hands dirty. They want to stare at a screen all day. I’ve always been a hands-on guy,” said Pathemos, noting that back and knee pain and busted knuckles are part of the gig.

Belford added that he sees the trend in other trades like plumbing and construction, as well.

“There are still a lot of people in this industry, but I’m talking about new faces, the younger generation. There are some, but it’s not anywhere close to where it was,” he said. “The generations have changed as far as work ethic and what they want to do. I talk about that with people all the time. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just one of those things — a product of our society now.”

Parthemos said that technology in newer cars also requires an expanded skill set from younger technicians.

“The cars are getting too sophisticated for their own good,” he said. “The computer side of a vehicle is very intricate, very sensitive.”

It is often those electronic components that Parthemos still struggles to find.

Parthemos said that while some of the parts he uses are readily available, he still experiences gaps and delays, particularly with electronic components and parts for older vehicles.

“There was a shortage of parts, yes. The prices of parts went up astronomically, just like everything else. The prices still aren’t where they used to be,” said Parthemos, who opened his business in 2021, amid the pandemic. “I won’t say it is where it was previously, but they are starting to come around.”

Parthemos said that many of his customers are holding on to their vehicles longer, in many cases electing to make extensive and costly repairs rather than replacing the car.

The average age of light cars and trucks in use in the United States rose above 12 years in 2022, according to a study by S&P Global Mobility. It was the fifth straight year that the typical vehicle has, on average, gotten older. With more older cars on the road, one might surmise, comes the greater chance of mechanical breakdown.

“People are definitely repairing what they have. I tell people, if you have a $1,200 car repair once a year, that’s $100 a month, you’re not going to find a new car for that,” he said, noting that repairing older cars is a challenge that comes back to finding the parts. Parthemos said that he’s seeing customers replace engines and transmissions much more frequently. “Pre-COVID, people would just trade it in.”

With big and small jobs alike, Parthemos said that there are still delays in getting parts — with some being especially difficult to find — and customers are paying more.

He said he’s been waiting for an engine that has been backordered since September, for instance.

“A lot of vehicles you’re working on, everybody quit producing the parts. Finding parts for a ‘98 Chevy Blazer, like an airbag sensor, you can’t get them anymore,” he said.

But the high prices translate even to accessible parts. Replacing front brake pads and rotors, for instance, would have cost around $350 before COVID, Parthemos said.

“Now, it’s up to almost $500 for pads and rotors,” he said. “The world is changing. For 25 years, I’ve been working on cars. You used to be able to get rotors for $25 a piece, now they’re $75 to $125 dollars a piece.”

Belford said that the body repair side of the industry is “probably 92 to 95 percent back” to operating as it did before the pandemic.

“Depending on the make and model of the car, obviously. You never know when you order a part if it’s going to take additional time or if it’s going to be backordered with an unknown delivery time. That did happen pre-COVID, but it was a rarity,” he said, noting that he is generally able to obtain sheet metal, hoods, headlights and other commonly used parts easily.

However, he has seen a huge increase in demand for body repair.

“There is definitely an increase in work from collisions, accidents over the past two or three years. Probably since the beginning of 2022, accident claims to insurance companies have been up 150% to 200%. There is a lot more work in the shops than there was before. It’s got shops backed up, stacked up,” said Belford, who has been with Sterling Collision for about seven years.

He said he sees a lot of rear end/front end collisions that he suspects are caused by distracted driving.

“In my opinion, it’s cell phones,” he said. “People are not paying attention when they drive.”

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