During a recent trip back to my hometown in Ipoh, I learned from my dad that the son of the mechanic that he usually visits has moved to Singapore. He recently secured a technical position at the Mercedes-Benz division of Cycle and Carriage. Good for him I say.
He is a talented young kid who has been helping out in his father’s workshop long before his peers learn about the theory of combustion engines. I have no doubt about the quality of his work.
However his father’s workshop is literally under a tree, with a small shack for tools and parts. It doesn’t look very presentable but locals in the neighbourhood will vouch for his work.
So here’s the question – if he is so good, why is he operating under a tree? The answer is obvious - he is considered good by his customers only when his prices are cheap. Do you think his ambitious and talented son will settle for such an environment?
More importantly, as a father will he want his son to continue doing the same? Therein lies the problem with our industry. We complain about paying inflated prices for our cars but at the same time, refuse to pay the sort of labour charges adopted by other more developed countries when it comes to paying for skilled labour.
Ask any workshop or authorized 3S centres on what is their biggest challenge. The answer is always the same – recruiting and retaining technical talent.
Automotive technicians are in such short supply than many don’t stay put for long. Even dealers representing the same brand are often forced to poach technicians from each other.
With such instability at the working level, you can’t expect after-sales services to be very good.
The reasons why after-sales services here are so poor boils down to just two – low wages and a shortage of talent in the market. With such low wages, talented ones will just find employment elsewhere.
If workshops start charging more so they can pay better wages to hire better technicians, customers will complain, before telling tall tales that the other workshop down the street can do it cheaper.
Well the workshop down the street can do it cheaper because it’s cutting corners by using fake parts and lubricants.
We are actually a very vain society. We want to be seen driving nice cars, but won’t pay decent money to maintain our cars.
How else could you explain high-end cars running on cheap dodgy brand tyres? Or customers that tell their workshops to delay replacement of worn out parts.
We want our cars to come with all the niceties, but we want to maintain it at the same price as a carburetor-fed Perodua Kancil.
Today’s technicians need to know not just about mechanicals, but also working with digital electronics and softwares controlling the infotainment and engine computer. Powertrains are now more complicated than ever before.
Vehicle technology is also more fragmented than ever before. Working on modern common rail direct injection diesel engines require a very different set of expertise from petrol engines, likewise for hybrids.
Today’s entry-level Proton cars have more software codes than a BMW from the ‘80s. Even the Perodua Axia, the cheapest car in Malaysia, now has an electronically controlled brake system that’s linked to a stereoscopic ASA camera.
Just because someone is holding a RM80 OBD scan tool purchased from Lazada doesn’t mean he knows what he is doing.
Our society also needs to learn to respect vocational and technical talent more. In many countries, plumbers, electricians and technicians are classified as skilled labour (their job is heavily regulated too) and their hourly wages can be as high as a general practice doctor.
There are currently 200,000 unemployed graduates in Malaysia (based on current government data). For many school leavers, perhaps getting a technical certification may actually be a better option than wasting time and money on a degree that offers little value.
Some car companies like Mercedes-Benz Malaysia and Bermaz Motor operate in-house technical training institutes catered for school leavers but these can only address the talent supply for entry-level positions.
The problem of retaining these talent long enough so they progress into more senior positions, and the unsustainable operating environment for workshops will still remain.
Some will argue “But our cars are already so expensive.” Well, if you can’t afford to maintain the car then you can’t afford the car. It’s that simple. Refer to the earlier point on vanity.
Without a steady supply of young technical talent to support our automotive industry, the local automotive scene cannot grow any further.
As an individual, you can improve things by doing your part in paying decent money for good work done. Personally, I have never bargained with workshops that work on my cars. If I think the work done is too poor or too expensive, I just won’t return.
The guy who works on my E30 always gets a healthy tip from me. Good work must be rewarded. Without the promise of reward for good work, there can be no progress in our society.
Until we close the gap between a technician’s hourly wage versus the skills required to properly work on today’s cars, don’t expect the standard of automotive after-sales here to improve.
Like many things that are wrong with our society, we are quick to complain about it but fail to see our role in contributing to the problem.