“When the kids get out of school, most of them want to leave and get out of here. They want to be gone. They want to see what the big city is like. A few come back and actually live and work here, but I’ll tell you, it’s a small amount. And the ones that stay here don’t usually go into the trades,” said Mark McKenzie.
McKenzie, 70, has been in the mechanics trade industry since the early ‘90’s. He works at the Bishop High Country Lumber repairing engines and machinery.
Originally from Los Angeles, McKenzie and his sister were raised by his two parents in a small, quaint neighborhood right near the first-ever Vons grocery store.
His parents, both of whom lived through the Great Depression, were an enigma to McKenzie and his sister.
“My parents didn’t tell us a thing about their lives. I didn’t know anything about them. They were really quiet, but I know they both led really interesting lives,” said McKenzie, with a twinkle in his eye. “My dad was on a submarine out in the Pacific during World War II and my mom was a union laborer who grew up very religious. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from her high school, but she never told me a thing about it.”
Although McKenzie didn’t know much about his parents’ private lives, he did know about their impeccable work ethic.
“During that era, you saved everything and you worked hard. Both my parents busted their asses,” said McKenzie.
His parents bought his childhood home for $250,000.
“Almost everything around the place, including all the landscaping, we built by hand; I helped make the stone patio in the backyard with my dad when I was eleven,” he said.
McKenzie got his first job out of trade school at a Los Angeles Buick dealership as a mechanic. He described this dealership as having both the best and the worst management that he’s worked under.
“It was a three-generation family deal. The grandfather and the dad were really great,” said McKenzie. “Then the son took over around 1990. He bought this huge mansion in Santa Barbara and basically closed down the entire dealership right after the Rodney King
riots in 1992. So I started looking for jobs elsewhere.”
Wanting to get out of LA, McKenzie eventually made his way to the Eastern Sierra where he caught on as a mechanic at Luther Motors in Bishop.
In 2005 he got hired at High Country Lumber, where he has now worked for the past 16 years fixing small engines and machinery parts – from small chainsaws to large riding mowers, and everything in between.
Since his time at High Country Lumber, he has seen upwards of 100 young mechanics come and go.
“We went through a bunch of kids before we ended up hiring the two older guys that I currently work with. Like a bunch of them. And they were terrible,” said McKenzie, trying not to laugh. “They’d fall asleep, they’d be at the computer looking at their own stuff. They were kind of just a waste of time. So now we have older guys- one guy who worked for the Forest Service for over 30 years and another guy who worked for the Town of Mammoth Lakes for 30 years.”
Most of the younger trade workers who are serious about their profession are, as McKenzie put it, “smart enough to know” to get in with a major company that pays well, such as Southern California Edison.
Either that, or they move to substantially larger towns.
“The smaller trades, the ones in small towns like this, just don’t pay enough to have a wife and kids and family,” said McKenzie. “I mean, when I was working in the big city fresh out of trade school, I was making $23 an hour. Now I only make like $15.”
McKenzie doesn’t anticipate the wages rising much for his small town profession; in his opinion, there simply isn’t enough business to be able to get paid more.
The young people that do decide to stick around are not too eager to work.
McKenzie attributes this, in part, to the current unemployment benefits amplified by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The bottom line is that getting people to work is tough. Especially for a lower wage. And it seems like they’re giving out a bunch of free money right now, so I get it,” said McKenzie.
He also noted that he sees a lot more of a “throwaway society” than he used to.
“We sell cheap stuff and we sell good stuff at High Country. I’ve seen more and more people buying the cheap stuff and then replacing it since it isn’t worth the money to fix it. They end up spending way more money on their machines than if they just bought the well-made, more expensive options to begin with,” he said.
This same pattern seems to apply to the younger workforce.
“I would say that about 10 to 20% of young people I see actually work hard and are dedicated. There’s always going to be that fraction of people that give 110%. But I don’t think even they are gonna want to work for what I work for. So I really don’t know what the future holds,” said McKenzie.
Once he retires, McKenzie plans to spend more time doing things he loves; this includes photography, framing, fly-tying, and fishing.