12V Installer Shortage: Facts and Solutions

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Marcel Newell

“Where are the installers going?  Are they dying?” asked Marcel Newell of Avidworx.

“I spend more time looking for employees than I do customers,” said Ben Vollmer owner of Audition Audio, GA joining Newell in leading a seminar at Spring KnowledgeFest last week.

They offered some tips on surviving the installer shortage in ways you might not expect–through number crunching.

First, a look at where the qualified installers are going and why.

The best paid car audio techs make $50,000 or $75,000 a year, and 90 percent make less than $52,000 according to salary.com, said Vollmer. But a mechanic at a local car dealer can easily make $80,000, he said,  adding “We do very complicated trouble shooting.  A help desk technician at the bottom of the IT industry starts at $15 and if he’s any good, he’s making $45 to $50,000 a year inside 18 months. If they do well, they are at $100,000 in 3 years.” He added, “So your competitor is a copy repair guy, an HVAC tech…those are the exact same skills [as a 12 volt tech].”

A partial solution for the industry is to start paying by billable hours. Then you can track utilization. If an installer bills for 4 hours in an 8 hour day, he is 50 percent utilized.

Perfectionist Job Board
Perfectionist Auto Sound’s job board

“In other industries, you pay based upon utilization,” said Vollmer.

“So you get a base salary of let’s call it 50k. If your utilization rate is less than 50 percent, you get $20 per hour billed towards the client. If you bill more than 65 percent, you get 25 per hour extra, if you bill more than 85 percent, you get $50 an hour,” said Vollmer.

He said, “I stopped charging by the piece two years ago. I quoted a job for $85 that took 10 hours. That was the last straw.”

An installer should be billing for 80 percent of his work hours (80 percent utilization), said Newell.

“… our industry is really engaged in piece work. As I understand my history, piece work originated from Circuit City. And so here we are as an industry following a company that is out of business…Why is it mechanics can charge book rate, but we are afraid to?” asked Vollmer.

“When my staff says we need another tech, I say, ‘no you don’t, you have an extra 2 hours in the day,’” he said.

If your store is bringing in $1 million, how many installers do you need? Most retailers in the audience answered 3, but Newell said you should only need 2 techs who are fully utilized, and he’s seen it, in one store, which he didn’t want to name.   “He has a machine. Two techs and two sales guys and they slam $1 million. Before him the best I saw as $800,000 with 2.5 techs,” he said.

So one partial solution to the installation shortage is to fully utilize the present staff.   And that relies on another business practice that is weak in this industry, which is properly pricing out jobs.

Vollmer subscribes to All-Data. He starts with the book rate for an installation and has half hour time slots for each accessory like OnStar or SiriusXM.

“How accountable do we make our staff? …If he only has two cars today, he thinks, ‘well I’m going to stretch that out.’ Could he be used for calling customers back or helping to sell?” asked Newell. He said employees need to be given the new rules of the game.

At Perfectionist Auto Sound & Security, AK, there are 4 to 5 installers run by an installation manager, said Newell. The manager assigns the job and the time.  It’s all tracked on a huge white board (shown above).   The installer is literally handed a timer that he sets as he goes to get the car.  When the job is finished and he’s returned the car to the customers, he stops the timer and it’s marked on the board.   Job times are all loaded into a spread sheet at the end of the day that is tracked.   Newell said Perfectionist’s productivity jumped 30 percent immediately.

“Not many shops track their installer efficiency.  If you do, it gives you guidelines to set a standard because there is no standard,” said John Schwartz in a phone call.  “It lets you know if you are billing correctly.  If we’re billing 2 hours for a car and we see that work orders are coming in at 3 hours, we know we need to change it.”

By the way, if you want to see a cool retail web site, click on Perfectionist’s site here.

To learn more about staff utilization and improving productivity, here are some links offered by Vollmer, who in addition to running his 12 volt shop, also works for Avidworx’ BusinessWorx, which helps retailers track, promote and manage their shops.










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  1. I don’t know about other installers, but after working at my last job and not being paid at the top or bottom of the scale your talking about, and doing 98% of the workload at about a 85% to 90% effecent rate of work. Now I know what my eff rate was because the prior employer knew how to run his bussines and tracked the installers output and quality. My last boss couldn’t track a fart around the room let alone run a bussines. Right place right time, the guy just got lucky. Had he tried it with skill he would have went bankrupt. Honestly how long do you think car audio is going to last? If what the automakers want to do passes none of us can work on a car built after 1986. No radios, no remote starts, no tunning the motor. You won’t be able to hook up a xm radio in a car without possible lawsuits. Insurance companies will not insure shops. Wake up contact your state rep, your congressmen and anyone else you can think of. Or we will all be looking for jobs!

  2. I have been trying to promote the idea of higher labor rates in our industry for over 10 years now. I still see too many shops selling the “deck install” for a predetermined labor rate of $35-$45, which is what we were selling them for back in 1989… that’s 26 years ago… It’s time for all shop owners in this industry to wake up and realize what skills we are selling, and back up what you sell with your knowledge of 12V systems and troubleshooting expertise.

    I do expeditor work for car dealerships now, and have seen their labor rates rise about every 18-24 months over the past 20 years. The lowest labor rate I’ve seen at the dealerships we work for is currently $108/hr, and some of the premium car brands have labor rates in excess of$130/hr. Now these are also dealerships that sublet to my shop to do 12V diagnostic work for them, not just on stereos, but OEM video systems, cameras, reverse sensors, lighting issues, etc. My “flat” labor rate is currently $80/hr, so the dealership service departments see value in us doing the work for 2 reasons: We are cheaper than their own internal labor rate of $86-90/hr, and we generally have a lot better knowledge and understanding of 12V electronics than their mechanics do, which makes our time on jobs less, so they are saving both on rate and time per job. I’m not ranking on mechanics/technicians, they can rebuild an engine and transmission way better than I ever could.

    Our industry needs backing from manufacturers, the MECP program is a joke, because it gains you nothing but a piece of paper to hang on the wall that says you took a test and know some things. You can maybe sell that to 10% of your customers who care about it. Most consumers don’t even know what it is. I took the test when it first appeared in 1991, got Installer First Class, and not one employer ever cared about it, nor compensated better for it. I’ve been doing installs for 26 years now, and nothing has changed. Sure, there are a few shops that *require* the MECP to be hired, which semi-promotes training and learning, but if it represents almost nothing to consumers, it has no real value you can sell for. The big name manufacturers should promote at the very minimum, a doubling of their warranty, up to 5 years, if the product is installed by an MECP certified installer. That Sony/Pioneer/Kenwood/Alpine/JVC/Clarion deck just gained more value to the consumer because they had you install it, and got an extra free 1 year of warranty on a $99 radio.

    It amazes me the disparity I hear about in 12V labor rates across the country. I go to trade shows, and talk to many reps and distributors, and they all seem amazed at the labor rates we charge for “basic” installs. They seem to think the benchmark for our labor rates is set by back-alley Brooklyn camera shop or Ohio gas station installers selling their product for 25 points and $40 labor. THAT thinking at the rep/distributor level needs to be educated as well. You can’t sell the same $200 deck installed in every vehicle, not when dash kits range from $5-$400, and interfaces from $50-$250. Teach your customers, and they will understand that.

    Cars are NOT getting easier to work on, they are much more complex, the new dash kits and integration modules are expensive and take MORE TIME to install and program, we have to learn new cars and systems every year to keep up. We work hand in hand with our dealerships and service departments, and in return they give us access to service manuals, wiring diagrams, etc. which we can read and decipher, to help trace problems, AND make us more educated for new installs.

    It used to be, a shop was run so that pumping out 10 cars a day for $45 per install was the way to make money. Then 6 of those cars came back in a week because the install was rushed, mistakes were made, and/or problems weren’t addressed at time of install. That’s a losing principle, in both time, and customer perception of your worth. I would rather do 5-6 cars per day for $100 per install and make sure each install had the time it took, double-checked and done right the first time.

    We live in an age of consumers that can research a lot of things about us and our industry, and they appreciate up front honesty, and further education and knowledge from us. Here’s a sample of “job” labor rates that we use:

    DIN deck $75
    Bluetooth deck $100
    Video deck $125
    Navigation system $250
    Bluetooth handsfree kit $125-$150
    Overhead DVD $300
    Headrest DVD $250-$300
    Steering Wheel adapter $60
    Remote Start $300
    Backup camera $150
    Speakers in OEM location $50/pair

    These are just LABOR rates, before dash kits/interface/programming, etc. Get the money folks, do the jobs with more time spent doing them properly, and get paid for it accordingly. Aim for 0 defects out of your shop, and MAKE it happen, don’t rush it. This alone does volumes of good for your business, and the word-of-mouth from your customers can make or break you. Take the time to do it right the first time. I always tell my customers that I take my time to do the job right the first time, and the best compliment I can get from them, is that I never see them again; unless of course they want to buy more, or bring in a friend. That means I did the job right, met or exceeded their expectations, and they were educated properly on what they were sold.

    I spend more time selling our skills and expertise, rather than the product, which the customer usually knows enough about in this day and age of internet anyways, while my MECP certificate fades and gathers dust….

    We ARE 12V specialists. It’s high time we started promoting AND getting ourselves compensated for that fact.

  3. The only solution for this problem is for the distributors or manufacturers of Alarms / Remote starters/ audio/Video and tinting to have a training facilities all year round to send new generations to have a hands on experience and for free if they want their products to be sold. I don’t care what kind of alarm or remote starter I sell as long I can send couple of new applicants for a free training. The market will be full of trained employees and we will never have a shortage. Why would I sell DEI / Voxx / CompuServe or any product if they are not willing to give our employee the proper training from scratch. They send their techs to a distributors facilities to talk about the more advanced technical issues and what’s new but never offer training from scratch. I look at people faces and most of them are lost. Wake up distributors. Train my employees then I sell your products otherwise I can order products from China directly for way less money and sell it in my store . Most of your products are made in China anyway. And the customers will buy whatever brand I sell. I’ve been in business for 25 years and I have to train my relatives to keep my business going rather than others. Training …training …training….Every distributor must have a training staff and the facility to train new techs. Otherwise Amazon will open their shops soon and everyone else will be closed.

  4. I still strongly believe that if there was a Journeyman program for 12 volt our industry would be helped immensely. If a guy working at a parts counter can get his Red Seal, or the girl cutting my hair, why can a guy that works on your car not have the same credibility.

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