Originally published in Issue #192
“Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be.” — Leo Tolstoy, “Anna Karenina”
Repairing bikes isn’t a great way to make a living. On average, bike mechanics are paid less than the average high school dropout. Pretty sad state of affairs for an industry that seems able to sell multi-thousand dollar bikes on a regular basis.
How did this happen? First and foremost, bike shops are terrible at making money. The profit margin on new bike sales usually hovers right around the break-even point. Parts and accessories are moving more and more to online sales. Considering you can often buy things from brands like Shimano for less than dealer’s wholesale cost, this comes as no surprise.
Bicycle mechanics are also unregulated, meaning any dolt off the corner can selfidentify as a bike tech. No certification, no licensing, no industry-wide educational programs. While there are a few good schools out there offering bicycle repair classes, these aren’t true certifications.
Additionally, the seasonal nature of the bike business in many parts of the country leads to annual layoffs. After a few years of regular wintertime unemployment, many talented people move on to careers that offer better job security. So each year a new round of raw mechanics start at entry-level wages, which drives down the average wage as well.
Add to this the perception by some of the public that fixing bikes can be done by just about anyone. Work in a shop for any amount of time and you’ll hear complaints about the cost to repair something “simple” like a flat tire.
There have been attempts to start a professional organization or union for mechanics over the years, and it seems like one is finally going to stick around. The Professional Bicycle Mechanics Association is brand new, but managed to add 5,000 members to its Facebook group in just a few months.
While that Facebook group is a mixed bag of everything that is good and bad about bike mechanics, PBMA is off to a good start with a board of directors and organizational structure that seems truly professional.
From the PBMA blog: “A major goal of the Professional Bicycle Mechanics Association (PBMA) is to help define what certificated training means to an employer and eventually issue professional certification levels as a member benefit. In the U.K. there are cycle mechanic trade schools and those conduits are a major part of entry into the industry. They have a governmentimplemented system in place that is recognized by the cycling industry, the bicycle dealers, but also, and most importantly, by the general public. We are hoping to create programs and systems that could eventually lead to a similar system for the cycling community here.”
As a former mechanic and shop owner I’m entirely behind this idea. With the massive amount of standards and ever more complicated component designs, it is time for the industry to embrace the idea of certification for mechanics. I’d also like to see a push for better pay for those willing to dedicate time and money to becoming educated and experienced. No one that works on bikes for a living is doing it to get rich, but that doesn’t mean they have to work for barely above poverty wages either.
Workers organizing to improve their lot have a long history of positive outcomes for everyone involved. Keeping some of our best and brightest around the shop with better pay and benefits will have a positive effect that will extend far past the wallets of the dedicated grimy guys and gals in the back of the local bike shop. Check out PBMA’s website for more information.