Folio Weekly: As an automotive technician, what is it exactly that you do?
Jason Leighty: I reverse-engineer vehicles to figure out why they won't function. It's an industry where you have to know more about more random things because it's all compiled into one vehicle. We're electricians. We have to understand hydraulic theory. The refrigeration systems in the cars work the same way as the fridges in your house, so I have to know how to fix that. We have to understand communication networks that are very similar to an ethernet [because] in modern cars, the computer systems talk on a high-speed network. It's not just 12-volts and a ground anymore.
What cars do you see most often in your shop?
Ford, Chrysler and Chevy are the big, big, big moneymakers.
What about Japanese cars?
I don't make much money on Toyota, Nissan, Subaru, Lexus. Their build quality is such that their engineers do it right the first time. Most of the money you see from the Asian cars comes from general maintenance.
Is there a benefit in going to a specialized technician who works on only European cars?
Yes, I believe there is. The way they're assembled, the tool-base used … Porsche, BMW, Audi, Volkswagen — they'll use sockets and bolts that are different shapes than you find on other vehicles. The methods used to disassemble them are sometimes the most tedious on earth, and if you're seeing it for the first time, something that might take an hour-and-a-half could take six hours. Europeans engineer their cars to perform very well. But it's that old adage, if you wanna play, you've gotta pay.
What are the most common issues you see?
It's seasonal. At the beginning of summer after taxes have all been filed, the shop is flooded with AC repairs. Right before Thanksgiving, I see tons of "we're going on a trip, could you please check over this vehicle?" After Christmas, we'll get a small surge of "my car hasn't been running well and I had to wait until after the holidays."
If it's not just nuts and bolts anymore, what kind of tools do you use?
The technology is developing so rapidly. You spend more money investing in a tool-base that allows you to diagnose than you have invested in
tools just to turn wrenches. A tech in 1990 would never have seen this stuff coming. I have $100,000 worth of tools in my shop. You'll never get rich because you have to invest 25 percent of your income into tools just to do your job. There's another $100,000 I could spend, but you have to
understand your client base, find your niche in the
market and then specialize your tool-base.
How are technicians paid?
We get an agreed-upon hourly rate, but I don't get a wage. If I sit here and don't turn a wrench all day, I'm missing out on a day's pay. If a job takes five hours — and that's not a number we just pull out of a hat — we get paid for those five hours, even if it takes us seven.
Do you think yours is a stable career?
In 2008, I had been a technician for only a year, that's when the big collapse happened. And yet my pay increased by 20 percent that year. I was not impacted by the recession. People stopped buying new cars and started fixing the old ones.
Is this a competitive field?
It is. It's all about how great an understanding you have of the systems and the ability to diagnose, but also the ability to earn the trust of the people having to spend the money.
What can average people do to minimize how much they spend on their cars?
I can't urge people enough, if you want the car to last, open the owner's manual and read the book. People don't sell you a $30,000 vehicle and include a book to not be read. There's a list of things to check. Things that go beyond oil changes, transmission fluid exchange, air filters and fuel filters. I'm willing to bet 75 percent of people don't read their owner's manual. If we got more general maintenance customers, not only would our profit margins be great, but our customers' cars also wouldn't leave them stranded at random.
Is general maintenance the rarest reason people come to see you?
It is. People seem to take oil changes seriously, but that's about all.