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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Catch-22 of Bicycle Mechanics

Back in 2011 Matt Faulkner (a bicycle mechanic) sent me an email praising my website, but also bringing up an issue he had had problems with in the past.

His comment was the following:

"Being dedicated to the profession of bike mechanics and seeing the pathetic hack jobs that come out of some shops (and occasionally mine, unfortunately), I am a firm supporter of programs like the short lived BAM course, Winterborne, and the hope of government recognized bike mechanic certification.  The only issue I have with these courses and schools, is that the mechanics coming out of them just plainly are not skilled enough.  We brought in a number of co-op students from the BAM program, and had a handful of Winterborne graduates come in for tryouts, and simply none of them met the standards for us to give them permanent positions.  A friend of mine who owns another shop also had to let go of his Winterborne graduate because the amount of returned repairs was far beyond what is acceptable.  I understand that people of different mechanical and cycling backgrounds will come away from these courses differently, but the sheer number of shoddy mechanics I've seen some through these courses makes me a little suspicious of their curriculum.  I'm sure a school with the pedigree of Barnett's would have different results, but obviously their graduates are hard to come by up here.  I have heard talk lately, though, that BTAC (I may be wrong, but I think it was BTAC) is in the works with George Brown College to implement government acknowledged bike mechanic certification.  Keep your eyes peeled!"

Now what Matt brought up essentially, perhaps without realizing it, is the old Catch-22 of training bicycle mechanics. You have to train bicycle mechanics in order to get bicycle mechanics that are "up to snuff".

Bicycle mechanics who failed to meet the standards set by the shop or not acceptable simply ended up being let go at later dates because the shop didn't feel compelled to train the new recruits to the level they wanted - or to use the techniques that the head mechanic preferred to use.

This is something I have noticed about various bicycle mechanic shops, the head mechanic always has their own opinion about the "correct way" to fix something in a particular way. That means a student, recently graduated from a bicycle mechanic program will be doing the methodology they were taught in class - including methods outlined by the esteemed Barnett* - and the head mechanic will disapprove of the method the graduate uses, but doesn't bother to actually teach the new recruit the so-called "proper way" that the head mechanic prefers to use. And these so-called proper methods will vary from shop to shop, with the differences largely being issues of how much time a particular method takes.

* Note - Matt also mentions Barnett's pedigree and reputation, although it is important to note that the BAM program followed the same curriculum and the same course book's that Barnett teaches. I cannot speak for what Winterborne program does however. If anyone knows if the Winterborne program copies the Barnett curriculum, please post a comment below.

So for my example, when I studied bicycle mechanics we were taught the Barnett method of doing everything - which unfortunately, is also the slowest method - which is to say, it is the "true proper way" of fixing something, in an effort to make sure it is done absolutely properly. However bike shops often skip over many of the steps that Barnett uses in order to save time and make the process more efficient. This in turn means that some bike shops are churning out shoddy repair jobs that are done hastily.

Now back to the original problem, how to get bicycle mechanics that are up to snuff.

Honestly it really comes down to training them in person, which means the head mechanic needs to get off seat and actually teach for once. Which means the owner of the bike shop needs to make teaching bicycle mechanics part of the job description.

Every graduate bicycle mechanic coming into a shop is going to have a different background, different training, and if they went through Barnett's or only program that is replicating Barnett's then they are the ones who actually know the "proper way" to do a particular task. It is up to the head mechanic to teach them the fast / efficient way that they personally approve of.

Writing about this reminds me of my interest of becoming a helicopter mechanic. Why? Because of the following reasons:

#1. Helicopter mechanics don't skimp on time when it comes to repairing the helicopter. If they fail to do the job properly, people fall out of the sky and die. Thus they have to do everything "by the book" and each repair is recorded, dated and logged.

#2. Helicopter mechanics are better paid, although not always by much.

"The average salary for a helicopter mechanic was $54,500 annually in May 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics. That figure breaks down to $26.20 per hour. The top 10 percent of mechanics made an average of $74,210 annually, or $35.68 per hour. The lowest 10 percent made an average of $34,630 annually, equivalent to $16.65 per hour."

Bicycle mechanics get barely minimum wage and treated like dirt, because people don't value a skill they could do themselves (in theory) but are too lazy to do themselves.

People working at McDonald's get paid better than bicycle mechanics.

No seriously, McDonalds workers get paid $15 per hour. Although we should note the same month McDonald's agreed to start paying their workers $15 per hour they started decreasing the staff by introducing automated kiosks.

The minimum wage in Ontario is currently $11.25, whereas the average bicycle mechanic in Ontario makes between $12 and $14 per hour - and often works part time, which means they are struggling to pay bills, to pay rent, and they are saving nothing for retirement.


The only real way for a bicycle mechanic to be saving for retirement is if they open their own shop and start charging whatever rates they want, building bikes and selling bicycles, bicycle parts, tools, etc. Which is what many bicycle mechanics eventually do, because they realize working for minimum wage and being treated like dirt just isn't enough.

In theory bike shops should also be offering private lessons in how to fix bicycles, which means they could then hire the best students as permanent staff. And they couldn't complain about what methods they use for fixing things, because it was the same methods they taught them.

1 comment:

  1. Are there any good programs or co-ops offered for already working professionals in other fields to explore the Bike Mechanics route as a part time occupation? I would love to hear if there are any. I have been to the Park Tool Program at Winterborne and I wasnt prepared for it since I just started more and more interested in Biking Mechanics. I am willing to work for a bike shop part time for the experience if that is a way to gain experience. thanks.

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