Although the image that usually comes to mind when we think of a mechanic is someone with grease stained hands and clothes, this increasingly technology driven field is changing that image. Wrenches alone are no longer enough to get the job done in this evolving field. Diagnostic computer equipment, infrared engine analyzers, compression gauges, and other complex devices are used daily to inspect, maintain and repair today’s vehicles.
Even the title of auto mechanic has changed to automotive technician to reflect that the daily job duties include more than just the mechanical parts under the hood. Due to these advances in technology and manufacturing, automotive technicians are required to have a whole new set of specialized skills and knowledge to help them do their jobs.
Auto Technicians (AT) provide what most consider a vital service – performing inspections, maintenance and repairs to ensure that the vehicles which take us from point A to point B every day are safe, reliable, and efficient.
Typical duties performed by ATs include:
- Identify problems using computerized diagnostic equipment
- Follow checklists to ensure that all critical parts are examined
- Test and lubricate parts and systems to ensure proper performance
- Perform basic care and maintenance, including oil changes, tune-ups, and tire rotations
- Repair or replace worn parts
- Disassemble and reassemble parts
- Use testing equipment to ensure that repairs and maintenance are effective
- Explain to clients the problem(s) and repair(s) done on their vehicle
Obvious characteristics for an individual to become a successful AT include mechanical, technical and troubleshooting skills. Additionally, the job of an automotive technician requires good customer service skills. Part of the daily routine of an automotive technician involves discussing problems and options to fix them with customers. Therefore it is important to be courteous, have excellent communication and listening skills, and have a wide knowledge base of a variety of vehicles.
The majority of ATs work in auto repair shops and auto dealerships, however positions can also be found in auto parts retail stores, high performance shops, government agencies, rental car companies, and with racing teams. You can expect to work a typical 40 hour work week in auto shop and dealership positions. However, some of these employers are open longer offering customers weekend and evening hours, which means working evening and weekend shifts.
Education, Training and Certification
It used to be that gaining hands-on experience in an auto shop was an option for becoming a mechanic. But as the field evolves and changes, auto technician schools play a critical role in ensuring that future ATs are equipped with the skills and knowledge required to do the job and prepare them for a successful career. The majority of employers hire only candidates with formal training. They look for a technician with a certificate, diploma, or associates degree from an accredited post-secondary school. This includes vocational schools, community colleges, and universities.
These programs provide theoretical training in the classroom as well as hands-on learning in a shop setting. Coursework commonly included in these programs are engine parts, electrical systems, transmission systems, automotive diagnosis, repair and maintenance, computers and business courses in addition to auto mechanic coursework. Plus, the majority of automotive programs include an internship or practicum which allows you to gain valuable practical experience.
Tuition for certificate programs range from $5,000 to $20,000 and take between six months and two years to complete. The cost for earning an associate’s degree ranges from $10,000 to $25,000 and will take two years to complete. The cost for each respective program depends upon whether the school is public or private, as well as your residency status. Some added benefits to seeking training from a college, vocational or technical school include assistance finding a position. Many schools have connections with industry employers and can provide you with job leads and networking opportunities. In addition, graduates are often ready to take one or more of the certification exams.
Although not required for becoming an automotive technician, Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certification from the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence is an industry standard for measuring technical knowledge and abilities and is becoming increasingly important for this competitive job market. Certification demonstrates a level of competence in a specific area and typically results in higher pay. It shows potential employers that you are not only motivated, but that you take your career seriously and feel that your skill set is vital to your career and advancement.
There are more than 40 ASE certification tests covering every aspect of automotive service and repair. The tests are broken down into 14 different specialties, with 9 tests in each series. To become ASE certified you must have at least 2 years of experience and pass one test within a series. To achieve Master Automobile Technician certification you must pass eight tests within a specified series. To ensure that you are up-to-date on your skills and knowledge, you must be recertified every 5 years.
Costs associated with becoming a ASE certified include a registration fee of $36 for any combination of tests, $30 for each test (except advanced level test which cost $60 each), and recertification which is the same as the corresponding certification tests ($30 or $60). Recertification test fees are capped at $90. So if you want to become recertified in six tests you will only pay $90, rather than $30 for each exam.
In addition to showing a level of seriousness about your career choice, certification in one or more specialties along with demonstrating administrative ability can help you to advance in your career. Opportunities include supervisory and managerial roles, becoming an instructor, or possibly opening your own automotive repair business.
To gain a better understanding of the type of information that you will be tested on for certification purposes visit the ASE Test Prep & Training page. Here you will find practice tests, study guides and tips.
There are a number of things that can affect the pay of an automotive technician, including certification, education, experience, and specialization. Additionally, it depends upon whether the technician is paid a regular hourly wage or if they are paid a flat rate per specific job.
Overall, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median pay for an automotive technician in 2010 was $35,790 per year, or $17.21 per hour. According to Salary.com, the median annual salary for entry level automotive technicians in select cities in California fell right around the national average as shown below.
According to CareerOneStop, employment for automotive technicians and mechanics in the state of California is expected to increase only by 7% between 2008 and 2018. Although this is slower than the average rate for all occupations, it does not take into account the automotive technicians and mechanics who will be retiring.
As stated earlier, those with a post-secondary education and ASE certification will place themselves in a much better position for gainful employment. Additionally, as the career field continues to evolve certain areas of specialization will be in higher demand. These include hybrid-fuel technology, post-warranty repair, and electronics. The key to ensuring that you gain employment and continue to move up is to stay sharp and continue learning. This is possibly the most important advice to remember if you choose a career as an AT. As the industry continues to advance, it is imperative that ATs stay up to date with their knowledge of processes, systems, and new technologies.
Advice from the Inside
There is information that simply cannot be found on the internet or in a book. It is the valuable insight and advice that can be gained only by talking with someone who has gone through the steps necessary to become and held a position as an Automotive Technician.
The automotive industry is very broad with a variety of opportunities and work environments. Automotive Department Chair at WyoTech, Ali Emadi has been in the automotive field for over 16 years. He says “there are many opportunities in this field for establishing a secure and reliable income, but it requires lots of knowledge. The technology changes constantly and new systems roll out every year. In order to be successful, you must keep up with the advancements in technology, or your knowledge will become outdated.”
James Hiner has been working as an automotive technician for the last seven years. He gained his education through a trade school and recommends that future auto technician students check all of the options available. “Look for what ties the trade school has with auto manufacturers and what their enrollment to graduation ratio is.”
Currently employed by a dealership, Hiner stresses the importance of doing your research when it comes time to find a position. “Research the prospective job. Make sure to ask about average hours, benefits, and tuition reimbursement. Make sure that the company you are looking at working for is doing well, not just the manufacturer. And after an interview, ask to stick around and talk to the techs that have been there – make sure that you fit in.”
If he were starting over again, Emadi says he “would try to get a job with a company that would recognize his needs for training and staying up to date. Manufacture training is available for technicians who work for new car dealerships. As new models roll out, dealerships require their technicians to become certified on repairing the new models. Usually these trainings are paid for by the employer and technicians are compensated for the time they spend at the training facility.” Knowing what he knows now, Emadi can see how the additional training would have helped him to become more successful.
“It is really up to the individual and how far you want to go in this field and how hard you are willing to work to get there,” says Hiner. “For me, over the past few years I have made an effort to make sure that the corporate level folks know my name and see what value I bring to the table. Like any job out there, it is always good for the people on top to know your name for a good reason rather than not know it at all!”
- To find scholarships for automotive trades check CollegeScholarships.org
- For continuing education information visit the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation