Single mothers make up a majority of the repair requests that come into Fix It Forward Auto Care.

The nonprofit, started in 2015, provides free auto repairs and donated cars to people in need in Fargo, ND. Founder Matt Carlson explained that single mothers usually face limited transportation alternatives when their cars break down.

“We’re in North Dakota. It’s cold. If you’re standing at a bus stop in the middle of winter in North Dakota with kids under the age of five, it’s really not a good situation,” Carlson said. 

Like auto repair shops across the United States, Fix It Forward Auto Care is grappling with escalating costs and labor shortages that are being passed onto overburdened consumers. Although inflation reached its peak in May 2022, car repair costs continued to skyrocket for the next year. Inflation in car repair costs reached 19.7% in 2023, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Despite subsequent declines, MarketWatch survey last year found that a third of respondents would be unable to afford unexpected repairs.

The auto shop at Fix It Forward tries its best, Carlson said, but the community’s growing need for their charitable services is outstripping capacity. 

“We are turning away more than half of the requests that we get, because we don’t have the resources to help them,” Carlson said. 

While Carlson’s customers aren’t responsible for the bill, millions of Americans aren’t as fortunate. Average service and repair costs can cost drivers almost $1,500 a year, according to AAA. Repairing a car has become more challenging and costly, with fewer workers possessing the skills — or the desire — to do the work.

Features like automatic emergency braking and blind spot detection are driving up repair costs, said David Bennet, a repair systems manager at AAA. These advanced driver assistance systems, or ADAS, transitioned from the luxury car sector to the mainstream market during the 2010s and have since become standard features. 

ADAS can make small issues expensive to fix. Carlson had a car in his shop with an engine that wouldn’t start. The culprit was a minor glitch in the window mechanism.

In another instance, a new tail light for a fresh Ford F150 – which cost $200 to replace on an older model – can cost a customer over $1,000 to replace, due to the added cost of a built-in proximity sensor.

“When we’re thinking about a 20-year-old car that didn’t have that, you can replace a halogen light bulb for five or ten dollars,” Carlson said. “Now we’re talking about an assembly that costs $1,000 or $1,500. It really catches people off guard.”

Nonprofits like Vehicles for Change provide used cars to needy families with guaranteed low interest loans. The nonprofit relies on donated cars, many of which require repairs. Martin Schwartz, president of Vehicles for Change, said their shop has had to increase their budget per car by several hundred dollars to accommodate higher repair expenses. 

Schwartz said that more clients are approaching Vehicles for Change after they were unable to afford needed car repairs on their previous cars.

“You have to make a choice whether you fix your car or whether you feed your kids,” Schwartz said.

Labor shortages are driving up repair costs and wait times. Industry estimates in 2023 projected that 495,000 automotive technicians were needed to meet demand over the next five years. 

Automotive schools began facing recruitment challenges as early as 2008, said Shannon Kies, an automotive technology instructor at the University of Northwestern Ohio. New technicians are challenged to understand intricate electronics and data networks.

“When they build cars today, the average person really can’t do much of anything on them, for crying out loud,” Kies said. “Some of them, you need to have a diagnostic tool just to reset the oil reminder light.”

The pandemic didn’t do the industry any favors. Completion rates for post-secondary automotive programs decreased by 20%, according to the Tech Force Foundation. Supply chain disruptions led to shortages of replacement parts and delivery delays. As new and used cars became scarcer, people started holding onto their cars longer. Older cars mean costlier repairs.

However, signs of hope are emerging for both the industry and its customers. As consumers resume healthy habits postponed during the pandemic, such as medical check-ups and regularly scheduled car tune-ups, the likelihood of breakdowns decreases. 

There’s improvement in technical school graduations, too. They increased in 2023 for the first time in a decade. 

For now, relief to drivers remains delayed, and increased car insurance premiums in 2024 will likely add to the pain.

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