Is It Time to Hire a Full-Time Mechanic for Your Shop?

Weigh many important financial factors before hiring an in-house wrencher to care for your fleet of vehicles and equipment.

Is It Time to Hire a Full-Time Mechanic for Your Shop?

There are two questions a contractor should ask when deciding if they should hire a mechanic for their shop. The first is how large is the fleet? The owner of the company also needs to consider how old the fleet is on average. The older the equipment, the more demand there likely is to have for a mechanic’s services, whether you contract out for the work or do it in-house. (Photography by Kevin Blackburn)

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There are several essentials in your underground utility construction business — skilled workers, appropriate licenses, a sharp front office staff. And then there’s your heavy equipment.

You have at least one truck, and chances are you’ve got several — vacuum trucks, directional drills, service vans and pickups, perhaps a backhoe or other excavating machine, and more.

If yours is a small operation, you probably take equipment to an outside shop for maintenance and repairs. But at what point is it a better deal to staff up and hire a full-time mechanic as your direct employee?


It’s not a simple decision, says Bob Rudolf, who teaches future diesel mechanics at Milwaukee Area Technical College in Wisconsin. The first question — how large is your fleet? — is really only half of the question, Rudolf points out. You also need to consider how old it is on average. The older your equipment, the more demand you’re likely to have for a mechanic’s services, whether you contract out for the work or do it in-house.

“You have to do a little bit of a balancing act,” Rudolf says.

Start with the fact that in the typical service shop, you could pay as much as $100 an hour for repairs and maintenance for your vehicles. It’s one thing if they’re new and just go in and out for routine maintenance. It’s another if they’re starting to age and need new parts and more frequent attention.

But new or old, federal law requires commercial trucks go through an inspection every year, Rudolf points out. And new or old, your vehicles need a thorough checkup every 10,000 miles, including an oil change and a grease job. As a fleet grows, that mandate alone could justify hiring a licensed mechanic of your own to conduct the inspections and provide the routine upkeep.

“If I’m a business guy and I’ve got one or two trucks, and they’re relatively new, I’m not interested in hiring a technician,” Rudolf says. “I would consider a full-time technician with a fleet of 10 trucks or more.” If the fleet is older, that threshold might be lower.


If you decide to hire an in-house mechanic, it’s important to know the reality of the industry these days. “Right now the truck world is very competitive, and there’s a huge shortage of diesel technicians,” he says. By the next decade, the shortage could be critical.

Chances are you’ve already faced similar hiring challenges and for similar reasons. “Baby boomers are retiring,” Rudolf points out. “The young people have been conditioned to go to school to become a doctor or lawyer or businessperson, and the trades are getting neglected.”

So if you think you don’t have 40 hours a week of work for a mechanic but will just hire someone part time, forget it. “You’re probably going to have to go full time or nothing,” he says.

Something else to remember is that most, if not all, of your equipment is what the trade calls “vocational,” special purpose, not general purpose vehicles. The exception might be pickup trucks that have been turned into basic service trucks, mostly used for hauling tools and supplies.

But chances are most of your trucks come with a lot of additional parts, such as pumps, tanks, perhaps a built-in jetter, and they all need specialized mechanical care. So your mechanic needs at least a beginning familiarity with those machines and the capacity to learn a lot more, and fast.


When it comes to hiring, don’t try to skimp, either. Starting wages in the Midwest for automotive technicians have climbed to between $17 and more than $20 an hour. They’re likely to be higher in some parts of the country.

“If you’re going to hire a master technician, you’re talking $25-$30 an hour, maybe $35 in some cases,” Rudolf says.

It’s possible you could strike up an arrangement with another business that has needs for mechanic’s services similar to your own, and work out a deal to jointly hire a full-time technician. But that might be a lot more complicated than simply waiting until you’re big enough to hire a full-timer yourself.

And don’t skimp on the actual cost of repairs, either, even if you’re doing them in-house.

“You don’t want to hire a technician and have to make them make do with Band-Aids and bailing wire,” Rudolf says. The job is too critical to the health and safety of your employees and the general public for that. “If the truck is in a collision and there’s a fatality, they might be looking at a manslaughter charge,” he says.

And then there are the costs you take on in addition to employee compensation.

Just like your personal car, more and more your heavy equipment is filled with sophisticated, computer-controlled systems. Just like your car’s mechanic, your equipment mechanic will need diagnostic computer software to analyze problems that crop up. That software might run on a $1,500 laptop computer, but it probably will cost you up to $10,000, Rudolf says.

And just as your other specialized workers need periodic training as technology changes, your automotive technician will too. Upgrading their skills with proper training and certification is just as much your responsibility as it is with the rest of your staff.

On the plus side, some of that training may be free or at relatively low cost. Machine manufacturers may provide factory training to their customers at little or no charge; parts suppliers might, too. For other training needs, check out your local technical education offerings.


Also, you’ll have to take responsibility for the environmental impact of a vehicle repair facility on your property. Preventing contamination of dangerous chemicals is a top concern.

You need to properly take care of everything from waste oil every time you service your trucks to other chemicals and cleaners that are essential to automotive repair. Handling those will require special licenses from regulatory authorities and special equipment to make sure everything is handled and disposed of safely.

“You want to make sure you’re not creating a mess, or otherwise you could be into some fines,” Rudolf says.

You might be wondering whether an operation like yours would attract a full-time mechanic. After all, unless you’re a huge operation, there’s probably not going to be a long career path.

Don’t sell yourself short. Not everyone goes into a job expecting to climb some promotional ladder that leads to an office with a vice president’s nameplate on the door.

“For me personally, a mom and pop shop is the best,” Rudolf says. “There’s a family atmosphere. You have a lot more freedom as a technician than you do in a large shop. You’re not a number. You’re actually a name. If you’re in a dealership, you might not have some of that camaraderie.”

So is it worth it to hire your own mechanic instead of taking your vehicles to an outside dealership? In the end, of course, only you can make that decision. But as your fleet grows, and as it gets older, it might be worth it to at least sit down and work out the detailed costs and benefits.

After all, without solid, dependable equipment, what future would your business have? 


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