When Jamie Heyl tried to make an appointment to have her vehicle repaired, she was told to take a number.
“When I called in October to see if I could reach someone, the first place I called had a waiting list of 600 cars and said it would be next year,” the Houma resident said. “We’re ready to buy a new car anyway, so it wasn’t worth it for us to wait that long for the car to be repaired. We were very lucky that it was drivable. I’m not sure what else we could have done.”
Several members of the Facebook group Da Buzz said Heyl is not alone.
Celeste Eymard Neigel of Larose also learned that repairing a vehicle in Terrebonne or Lafourche would not be a quick fix.
“My boys were killed from behind in January,” she said. “I contacted local repair shops and was told I would wait about a year. I called Gerber Collision and Glass in NOLA and had to wait six weeks.”
“Our community needs protection”: The Pointe-au-Chien tribe struggles to rebuild after Ida
What Neigel and Heyl experienced is happening in every auto repair shop in the country due to labor shortages and supply problems, experts said.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that employment in the auto technician industry will fall 4% through 2029. Retired baby boomers alone will open over 46,000 auto mechanic jobs by 2026, the agency said.
According to the 2021 FenderBender Industry Survey, more than two-thirds of the collision repair shop owners who participated in the survey were 50 years of age or older.
Roland Delatte, who owns Roland’s collision center in Thibodaux, said a labor shortage is only part of the reason car repairs are being supported locally.
Hurricane Ida, which made landfall in Terrebonne and Lafourche on August 29, caused extensive damage to vehicles and property, he said.
“People have to go as far as Texas to get their car fixed now,” Delatte said. “Lafayette is booked, New Orleans is booked and Mississippi is booked. It’s because of this storm and so many cars were damaged in it. The insurance companies did a lot of virtual estimations to get the process started, but when we bring the cars in they have a lot more damage than the first time. You may think you have a week’s work, but it goes up to three. The work is terrible too. I haven’t had a good application in 20 years. We simply cannot do more than what we are already doing.”
Post Ida Improvements:Entergy says its $86 million in energy upgrades will help South Lafourche weather storms
Michael Labat, owner of Kustoms Autobody & Accessories in Thibodaux, said another issue causing the backlog at the body shop is a lack of parts due to supply chain issues.
“I used to get parts overnight, sometimes even the same day,” he said. “Now I have a vehicle that needs five parts and I get four, but the last part takes three or four weeks to arrive. That was different.”
Rob Miles, owner of Rob’s Rods and Auto Repair in Houma, said labor shortages, supply chain problems and Hurricane Ida formed a perfect storm that impacted local body shops.
“I have a small auto repair shop in Houma and parts that we used to get overnight now take three to four days,” he said. “I ordered a crate motor at the end of February. It usually arrives in two to three weeks, but I still haven’t received it. I’m fully booked until mid-May. It started with the lockdown but seems to have doubled this year after all the natural disasters. I lost one full-time and one part-time employee to Ida. They lost their homes and moved away. I haven’t found anyone to replace her yet.”
Labat the backlog has changed the way he schedules his clients.
“I pretty much planned people out and started making a list,” Labat said. “I think that list will take me to January or February next year. I usually have about six weeks of work ahead of me, but I’m really behind because of the storm. It sure is an unusual time.”
Jason Altham, an automotive instructor at Fletcher Technical Community College in Schriever, said several factors are behind the mechanic shortage.
“What I think is causing a shortage of skilled workers in the auto repair industry is the way technicians are paid,” he said. “Technicians work on a so-called ‘flat rate’, which means that for each incoming order there is a fixed working time for the order. For example, if a car needs an alternator replacement and the Working Time Directive requires one hour’s labor to replace it, then that is the technician’s job, whether it takes five minutes or two days. A flat rate is good when the work is there, but when nothing comes to the front door, the technicians earn little or no money.”
Altham said the auto industry needs to change with the times.
“You’re falling behind,” he said. “If you want good, qualified people, you have to pay them well. Highly complex automotive systems require extensive training, and if you want to attract the people who understand these systems and can fix them the first time, you need to pay them appropriately.”