It's A Dirty Job, And Somebody's Got To Do It

April 27, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Distressing though it may be to the more devout advocates of highway safety, people who drive cars persist in smashing them up. This tendency makes work for insurance adjusters, for lawyers and for body-shop operators like my friend Bill Denny.

It also makes work for technicians, such as painters and sheet-metal specialists, who can earn good money getting the dents out. In the body-shop world, salaries of $50,000 a year are common, and $100,000 -- in places like Washington and New York -- isn't unheard of. But there's a problem. There's an abundance of work and a shortage of workers. This has implications both for Mr. Denny's business and for the national economy.

After high school, back in the '60s, Bill Denny went off to college to learn to be an engineer. He dropped out, got drafted and was sent to Vietnam for a stint as a helicopter crew chief. When he got back he was 21, a grown man, and found himself out of sync with what campus life in those days had become. He'd always been a gearhead, so he got a job repairing cars. Then, after a while, he opened his own shop.

He did good work, and the business grew. He now operates a state-of-the-art facility in a 20,000-square-foot building just outside of Havre de Grace. He has 10 technicians on his payroll, and the repair jobs, from dings to major wipeouts, continue to flood in. But young people willing to learn that kind of work, which requires perhaps seven years to attain journeyman competence, are very scarce.

Some of the reasons why this is so are complex, and some are as obvious as a head-on collision. Baby-boomer parents, of whom Bill Denny was one, tended to raise their children to seek college degrees, whether or not they learned anything useful in the process of obtaining them, and to shun manual labor. This was in theory about economics, but in reality more about status.

Dirty-hands jobs, even those that require a high level of skill and pay accordingly, lack prestige. This seems to be more the case in the United States than elsewhere in the developed world, but whether or not it's a uniquely American hangup, it's a fact. Not long ago, one of Mr. Denny's painters left the body shop for a job with less salary and less security, just because it was white-collar work.

There's another problem too. It involves patience. A body shop like Bill Denny's might pay a promising young person with no real skill something like $7 an hour, in the long-term expectation that in seven years he'd be fully trained and worth more than twice as much. Yet time and again, such a prospect will turn down body-shop work in favor of jobs that pay a fraction more, even though they offer no real hope of advancement.

Lady with a wrench

Mr. Denny speaks of that person as "he," because at the moment all his technical employees are male. But he looks forward to that changing, noting that in California, where many trends germinate, automotive jobs are increasingly going to women.

Some reasons for that development are fairly obvious. One is that advanced mechanical work on cars increasingly relies on computer-controlled equipment rather than muscle. Another is that women tend to be more reliable and cooperative than men. And a third is that they tend to work for less money, especially if the hours and working conditions are otherwise favorable.

Also, automobiles are no longer the important part of American male culture they were years ago. Teen-age boys liked cars that were fast and made a lot of noise. They liked figuring out how they worked, so that they could improve on them. Garage owners could count on a steady supply of young men who knew how to use a wrench. But those days are long gone.

Cars now are more complex and generally less exciting, and their place in society has changed. It's a show-room axiom that when a parent brings along a teen-ager nowadays while shopping for a new car, the kid typically has no interest in popping the hood. He climbs in and listens to the sound system.

Still, in the years to come, somebody's going to have to repair the cars the rest of us smash up. Right now it's hard to figure where those people are going to come from, and how they're going to learn their trade. Seeing a potential skills crisis ahead, a group of Maryland body-shop operators, in cooperation with Catonsville Community College, has just started an apprenticeship program.

Meanwhile, Bill Denny stays busy. In the collision-repair business as in the rest of human affairs, somebody's crisis is almost always somebody else's opportunity.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 4/27/97

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