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The immigration issue

October 11, 2010
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Professional Car Care Online™ recently conducted an unscientific poll that posed the question: “Do you think the carwashing industry can survive without an immigrant labor force?” Perhaps a more pertinent question is: “Why can’t carwash operators find domestic workers at the wages they are willing to pay?”

An uphill battle
The labor requirements for a full-service carwash are similar to those for hotels, restaurants, janitorial and landscaping services — a strong, capable manager, a few clerks and a large number of unskilled workers to do the manual labor.

According to reports from the Cato Institute, the demand for low-skilled labor in the U.S. continues to grow at a rate that cannot be met by the domestic labor supply alone. Carwash operators will continue to compete for labor in markets where the number of domestic workers is shrinking, while the number of immigrants, both legal and illegal, continues to grow.

A full-service carwash requires a lot of unskilled workers. According to annual benchmarking reports from Professional Carwashing & Detailing®, the number of workers required for a typical full-service carwash grew from 23 persons in 1992 to 30 persons in 2004, while the number of staff for a typical exterior-only carwash has dropped from 8 to 5 persons.

I don’t believe anyone expects a carwash operator to pay an unskilled worker a “living wage,” but $7 an hour is barely on par with what an illegal immigrant can get as a day laborer in practically any part of the country.

Because of random fluctuations in the weather and the seasonal nature of the carwash business, most carwash operators cannot match the working conditions or the more reliable wages which businesses with indoor environments can provide their employees.

Carwash operators also have trouble attracting laborers due to the type of work. Vacuuming, prepping, towel-drying and final detailing are boring and monotonous jobs, full of repetitive motions and usually conducted outdoors.

Facts of life
In many markets, legalized immigration would bring the underground labor force into the open and allow business owners to hire the workers they need to grow. Unfortunately, right now there is virtually no legal channel through which low-skilled immigrant workers can enter this country to fill in this gap.

As a result, we have a heavy flow of illegal workers. The proposed solutions include fence building, defining illegals as felons, expanding the guest worker program or legitimizing an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

It is unlikely that a properly designed system of legal immigration will have a significant affect on the labor woes facing many carwash operators. Most operators find it just as difficult attracting the higher quality low-skilled immigrants as they do domestic workers.

An attractive solution
Most economists are in agreement that service industries suffer from cost disease, the theory that productivity growth is typically slower to develop in service industries because it is relatively hard to reduce the use of manual labor.

It seems a logical approach for many carwash operators would be to adopt the flexible service operating platform. For example, flex-serve labor requirements are less than half those required at a traditional full-service carwash.

A flex-serve carwash can be operated effectively at a labor-to-revenue ratio of 20 percent, as opposed to 35 percent to 50 percent at a full-service carwash. An enclosed express after-care facility offers employees a much better work environment than being outdoors exposed to the elements.

The operating characteristics of a flexible service carwash offers employees a more diversified set of tasks and responsibilities which leads to less fatigue, a higher level of morale and less turnover.

These advantages can provide carwash operators the opportunity to attract a higher quality workforce and abandon the practice of hiring more, and poorer quality, workers at low wages.


Robert Roman is president of RJR Enterprises – Carwash Consultants (www.carwashplan.com). He is a member of PC&D’s Honorary Advisory Board and the International Carwash Association and can be contacted at rjrcarwashplan@yahoo.com.

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