101-year-old mechanic highlights growing shortage in Canada

Laurent Legault is still turning keys more than a century old and that’s good, because nowadays, his workforce is much needed

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Laurent Legault is 101 years old. This fact alone is, of course, remarkable. Even in these days of aging baby boomers and revolutionary medicine, hitting the century isn’t common enough to go, or should go, unnoticed. According GenealogyInTime magazine, only 0.0173% of baby boomers will celebrate a three-digit birthday.

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But that’s not what makes Legault extraordinary. Not by far. No, which makes Legault one in a million — not the one in 5,790.42 who GenealogyInTime0.0173% corresponds to – is that it always works. As a mechanic, no less. Like ripping out carburetors, changing spark plugs and, if someone comes in with a puncture, hoisting the repaired tire and wheel onto its axle.

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But, again, that’s not even what makes Legault truly extraordinary. Indeed, why you need to Google Mr. Legault is that he is always ripping and hoisting full time. As in 40 hours a week, five days for eight full hours each day, no hobby for Laurent. In fact, he almost seems to apologize by telling a TVAnews.ca journalist that he no longer works the “12 to 15 hour days, seven days a week” that was common for the first 50 years of his career, a deference he no doubt allows himself because he is fucking 101 years old.

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The only sad part of this otherwise incredibly inspiring story – I’m a gym rat and having had to change a tire but last week I can tell you that my lower back was not happy with my decision not to call CAA – is that the auto repair industry might need Mr. Legault to stay at work as long as he can. As anyone who has tried to get a car fixed recently can attest, it’s a longer and longer affair than just a few years ago. According Forbesauto repairs now take 2.1 days longer than before the pandemic, while JD Power says the wait time just to schedule a service appointment is now taking a day longer.

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Stories of excessive wait times, angry customers and unsatisfactory repairs are far more common than they were just a decade ago. Things are so bad that the Quebec branch of the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) recommends that all its members start booking their winter tire changes now — The beautiful province requires all cars to be running on snow tires by December 1, as work may not be done in time. And the problem is not supply chain issues. There are enough tires to mount all the wheels in Quebec, but not enough mechanics to install them.

The problem is acute across the industry. According rockstarmechanics.com, in the United States, there are 85,000 job postings on Indeed looking to hire mechanics, and only 19,000 certified technicians are listed as actively seeking employment. Here in Canada, the numbers are worse, with just 1,500 technicians on Indeed Canada looking to fill 7,500 jobs.

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Laurent Legault, the 101-year-old Quebec mechanic
Laurent Legault, the 101-year-old Quebec mechanic Photo by TVAnews.ca

The imbalance led to desperate measures. A dealer friend of mine recently noted that he raised his hourly shop rate another $5.00 this year. Nothing strange about that, you say – don’t they always raise prices? Of course, except that he paid all this increase – all this, he pointed out with a fair bit of disbelief – to his technicians. Indeed, across the country, dealerships are offering better pay, more benefits and more flexible hours, all in hopes of retaining current employees and attracting new ones. There are even reports of dealerships offering their technicians “bonuses” if they bring a new mechanic to the shop who stays for, say, at least a year. Car dealerships have notoriously – and sadly – been dismissive of the needs of their technicians for too long; this seemingly sudden reversal of fortune therefore shows how desperate times have become.

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Only, this problem is not as sudden as one thinks. Indeed, all the experts who Motor Mouth spoken with say the pandemic has only exacerbated a trend that began at least a decade or two ago. High costs — mechanics pay for many of their tools themselves — and an education system that has long favored college over the trades have resulted in a chronic shortage of apprentices. The Great Pandemic Retreat — Legault would appear to have missed the memo — has only exacerbated and accelerated the shortage.

Car repairs now take 2.1 days longer than before the pandemic, while waiting time just to schedule a service appointment now takes a day longer

Everything happens at the most inopportune moment. On the one hand, according to Statistical, there are about 39% more cars, trucks, buses and motorcycles on the road today than in 1990. To complicate matters further, we keep our cars longer, the median lifespan of a car in North America now exceeding 12 years. Add to that that there is an electric vehicle revolution underway that will require a radical change in training, that hybrid and PHEV vehicles are going to prove particularly difficult (since they are a combination of ICE and BEV) and that, thanks to changes that resulted from the COVID-19 lockdowns, more mechanic training is done remotely, and you have a problem heading into calamity.

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Smarter stores are already taking steps to remedy this problem. Some now pay an hourly wage with productivity bonuses. Those who pay a flat rate – pay per job on a schedule set by the manufacturer – now add compensation for diagnostic time that may not have been rewarded before. Still, it’s hard to see how this downward trend will reverse without policy changes and industry reinvention.

A young man working on an old Fiat
A young man working on an old Fiat Photo by Getty

The first step is obvious. Our denigration of trades must stop. The idea that a college education is the only path to a well-paying job seems laughable when a truly productive mechanic can now earn over $100,000 a year.

The second is a re-imaging of work. Or, more accurately, a realistic assessment of what mechanics actually do. Most automobiles these days have as many as 100 digital controllers, both simple and complicated, monitoring various performance, emissions and safety functions. As all mechanics know – but few customers and decision-makers appreciate – they need to be as digitally savvy as the average IT specialist. So much so that when BEVs eliminate dirty fingernails caused by ICE engine oil, “automotive technician” could be redefined as a white-collar job. Indeed, if the modern car has really become just a mobile phone on wheels, isn’t it also time for a car mechanic to be considered a digital technician?

Cars are more and more complicated, and therefore more expensive. This higher replacement cost means we keep them for longer. And older cars, just like older humans, require more “treatment” because they live longer.

All except perhaps Mr. Legault, it seems. Besides tearing up cars, he has a hobby. His sideline? Shovel snow from roofs. The man is a hero.


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