What are “Labour Times”?

Insight into how an automotive repair business comes up with the price you pay.

honest mechanic calgary

By Chris Dekker


So, you call up an auto repair shop, looking for a price on a given repair. The person answering the phone might tell you that the repair in question is a “4.7 hour repair”; or a “2 hour job”. Where do these numbers come from? Read on…

An automotive repair business such as ours needs a way to price out repairs with consistency. As an example, we don’t want to charge one 2010 Chevy Malibu owner one price for a tune-up, and then charge the next 2010 Malibu owner a completely different price! Also, because we service hundreds of different vehicle models, each with hundreds of replaceable parts, there’s a good chance we might be quoting a specific repair that we’ve never done before. We need a way to determine roughly how long that repair will take. This is where labour guides come in.

A labour guide is a program or document that lists all of the common repairs, adjustments and maintenance services for a vehicle, with an estimated time of how long each repair will take. Companies that develop these guides come up with these labour times a variety of different ways. Some will have multiple technicians perform a repair – often repeatedly – and select an average time, or the fastest time from that group. Many of the labour times also come from the vehicle manufacturers themselves. We mostly use the Mitchell labour guide, a sort of “industry standard” that most auto repair facilities use, when estimating the cost of repairs.

For example, let’s take that 2010 Chevy Malibu. The published labour time (from the Mitchell labour guide) to replace the water pump is listed as 1.6 hours for the V6 engine, but 4.0 hours for the 4 cylinder engine! That’s good information to know when pricing out a repair. Of course, the guide is just that: a guide; not a “labour rule book” or “labour law”. All businesses are free to interpret the labour times however they wish. Some businesses lure in customers with a low advertised labour rate, but then “inflate” their labour times to make up the difference. Other businesses may charge lower labour times in an effort to stay competitive, and others may increase the times to boost profit a little. One must also remember that these labour times are determined when a vehicle is brand new. Many repairs take longer as a vehicle ages: bolts rust and are prone to breaking; plastic becomes brittle; electrical connectors become filled with dirt and hard to disconnect; etc. One broken bolt in a tough spot can turn what is supposed to be a 1 hour job into a 5 hour disaster!

We typically follow the labour guide quite faithfully, but apply a formula that reduces the labour times for some repairs on newer vehicles, and adds to the labour time as vehicles age, to make up for the issues noted above. We’re very committed to honoring our estimated price, though, and will often end up “eating” extra time when things go wrong, like an inadvertent broken bolt. We don’t have to – and can’t always – do this, but we do our best to help our customers out as much as possible.

Here’s something you might not know about labour timesThere is a widespread public belief that most published labour times are excessive or biased, and designed to bring auto repair shops extra money. The truth is that the system actually favours the customer, by a factor of about 20 percent. How so? Let me explain. One of the numbers that every auto service business owner/manager looks at is productivity. Productivity is the ratio of billable hours of work a technician can complete, vs the number of hours the technician actually works. Once you calculate this for each technician, you can then average the numbers and figure out the productivity level of the entire shop. What kind of numbers are most businesses seeing? You might be surprised by the answer.

The average independent auto repair business such as hours, employing hourly-paid (not commission-paid, such as in a dealership or “chain store”) technicians is shooting for an average productivity of 80 percent. This means that if a technician works an 8 hour shift, they will complete 6.4 hours of billable work. And this is just the goal! But the Automotive Industries Association of Canada reports that in most years this goal is achieved on average, or at least almost achieved.

Why just 80 percent? There are a bunch of reasons why 100% productivity can be hard to achieve:

  1. Doing a job well, and doing all of the little things right, often takes time. A technician who puts a lot of pride into their work will usually take longer than a sloppy technician who is in a hurry.
  2. In an independent business such as ours, which services most vehicle makes and models, we do a wide variety of repairs. This sometimes prevents us from getting the repetition that breeds speed. You can imagine how your second time doing a given repair will usually be quicker than your first; and your 10th time even faster yet! The labour times are often based on a technician who has done that given repair over and over.
  3. Technicians sometimes spend a lot of time doing things that the labour guide does not account for, like test driving a vehicle to make sure the customer’s problem is gone; or thoroughly cleaning the underside of a car following a leak repair; etc.
  4. Sh*t happens. Bolts break, or can’t be removed. Parts sometimes do not fit correctly. The wrong parts might show up. Customers sometimes show up late for an appointment, or do not show up at all. There are all kinds of things that can throw a wrench (no pun intended) into a perfectly-planned schedule.

Someone might tell you that they were charged 2 hours labour for a repair that only took a technician an hour and a half, and they wouldn’t be lying. But odds are that sometime in that person’s recent auto repair history, they were also charged 2 hours labour for a repair that took 3 hours to complete. The difference always comes out in the wash; and usually ends up slightly favouring the customer at the end of the day.

Sometime else to consider when discussing labour times is labour overlap between related jobs. Let’s use the Chevy Malibu water pump repair as an example. The V6 water pump is listed at 1.6 hours. Let’s say the car also needs a new serpentine belt tensioner, which is listed at 0.8 hours. If we’re doing both repairs together, should we charge the sum of the labour times, or 2.4 hours? We don’t think so; because there is labour overlap between these jobs. In order to replace either part, the serpentine belt and several other parts common to each repair must be removed, so there is a labour savings when doing the repairs together. In a case like this one, we would likely quote the water pump repair at the original 1.6 hours, and then the belt tensioner as a combination repair at 0.3 hours or so. Not every business does their pricing thing way, but we feel it’s the right thing to do, and part of what sets us apart in the industry.


Hopefully this gives you some insight into how we run our business every day. Do you have any questions about labour times, or any part of the pricing process? Please shoot us an email using the contact link above; call us; or message us on Facebook! We’d be happy to share any information we can.

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