School Subjects: Business; Technical / shop
Personal Skills: Mechanical/manipulative; Technical/scientific
Work Environment: Indoors & outdoors; Primarily one location
Minimum Education Level: High school diploma
Wage or Salary Range: $16,600 to $29,510 to $100,000
Certification or Licensing: Recommended
Future growth: About as fast as the average
Automobile service technicians maintain & repair cars, vans, small trucks, & other vehicles. Using both hand tools & specialized diagnostic test equipment, they pinpoint problems & make the necessary repairs or adjustments. In addition to performing complex & difficult repairs, technicians perform a number of routine maintenance procedures, such as oil changes, tire rotation, & battery replacement. Technicians interact frequently with customers to explain repair procedures & discuss maintenance needs. Approximately 840,000 automotive service technicians work in the United States.
By the mid-1920s, the automobile industry began to change America. As automobiles changed through the years, mechanics—or automobile service technicians, as they are now called—have kept them running The “Big Three” automobile makers—Ford, General Motors, & Chrysler—produced millions of cars for a public eager for the freedom & mobility the automobile promised With the ill-prepared roads suddenly overrun by inexperienced drivers, accidents & breakdowns became common. People not only were unskilled in driving but also were ignorant of the basic maintenance & service the automobile required. It suddenly became apparent that a new profession was in the making.
Already in 1899 the American Motor Company opened a garage in New York & advertised “competent mechanics always on hand to make repairs when necessary.” Gradually, other repair “garages” opened in larger cities, but they were few & far between. Automobiles were much simpler in the early years. Basic maintenance & minor repairs often could be performed by the owner or someone with general mechanical aptitude.
As cars became more complex, the need for qualified technicians grew. Dealerships began to hire mechanics to handle increasing customer concerns & complaints. Gas stations also began to offer repair & maintenance services. The profession of automobile mechanic was suddenly in big demand.
By the 1950s, automobile service & repair garages were common throughout the United States, in urban & rural areas alike. Most mechanics learned the trade through hands-on experience as an apprentice or on their own through trial & error. When automakers began packing their cars with new technology, involving complex electrical circuitry, & computer-controlled mechanisms as well as basic design changes, it became apparent that mechanics would need comprehensive training to learn new service & repair procedures. Until the 1970s, there was no standard by which automobile service technicians were trained. In 1972, the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) was established. It set nation al training standards for new technicians & provided continuing education & certification for existing technicians when new technology became widespread in the field.
Today, the demand for trained, highly skilled professionals in the service industry is more important than ever. To keep up with the technology that's continually incorporated in new vehicles, service technicians require more intensive training than in the past. Today, mechanics who have completed a high level of formal training are generally called automobile service technicians. They have studied the complexities of the latest automotive technology, from computerized mechanisms in the engine to specialized diagnostic testing equipment.
Many automobile service technicians feel that the most exciting part of their work is troubleshooting — locating the source of a problem & successfully fixing it. Diagnosing mechanical, electrical, & computer-related troubles requires a broad knowledge of how cars work, the ability to make accurate observations, & the patience to logically determine what went wrong. Technicians agree that it frequently is more difficult to find the problem than it’s to fix it. With experience, knowing where to look for problems becomes second nature.
Generally, there are two types of automobile service technicians: generalists & specialists. Generalists work under a broad umbrella of repair & service duties. They have proficiency in several kinds of light repairs & maintenance of many different types of automobiles. Their work, for the most part, is routine & basic. Specialists concentrate in one or two areas & learn to master them for many different car makes & models. Today, in light of the sophisticated technology common in new cars, there is an increasing demand for specialists. Automotive systems are not as easy or as standard as they used to be, & they now require many hours of experience to master. To gain a broad knowledge in auto maintenance & repair, specialists usually begin as generalists.
When a car does not operate properly, the owner brings it to a service technician & describes the problem. At a dealership or larger shop, the customer may talk with a repair service estimator, who writes down the customer’s description of the problem & relays it to the service technician. The technician may test-drive the car or use diagnostic equipment, such as motor analyzers, spark plug testers, or compression gauges, to determine the problem. If a customer explains that the car’s automatic transmission does not shift gears at the right times, the technician must know how the functioning of the transmission depends on the engine vacuum, the throttle pressure, & — more common in newer cars—the onboard computer. Each factor must be thoroughly checked. With each test, clues help the technician pinpoint the cause of the malfunction. After successfully diagnosing the problem, the technician makes the necessary adjustments or repairs. If a part is too badly damaged or worn to be repaired, he or she replaces it after first consulting the car owner, explaining the problem, & estimating the cost.
Normal use of an automobile inevitably causes wear & deterioration of parts. Generalist automobile technicians handle many of the routine maintenance tasks to help keep a car in optimal operating condition. They change oil, lubricate parts, & adjust or replace components of any of the car’s systems that might cause a malfunction, including belts, hoses, spark plugs, brakes, filters, & trans mission & coolant fluids.
Technicians who specialize in the service of specific parts usually work in large shops with multiple departments, car diagnostic centers, franchised auto service shops, or small independent shops that concentrate on a particular type of repair work.
Tune-up technicians evaluate & correct engine performance & fuel economy. They use diagnostic equipment & other computerized devices to locate malfunctions in fuel, ignition, & emissions- control systems. They adjust ignition timing & valves & may replace spark plugs, points, triggering assemblies in electronic ignitions, & other components to ensure maximum engine efficiency.
Electrical-systems technicians have been in healthy demand in recent years. They service & repair the complex electrical & computer circuitry common in today’s automobile. They use both sophisticated diagnostic equipment & simpler devices such as ammeters, ohmmeters, & voltmeters to locate system malfunctions. As well as possessing excellent electrical skills, electrical-systems technicians require basic mechanical aptitude to get at electrical & computer circuitry located throughout the automobile.
Front-end technicians are concerned with suspension & steering systems. They inspect, repair, & replace front-end parts such as springs, shock absorbers, & linkage parts such as tie rods & ball joints. They also align & balance wheels.
Brake repairers work on drum & disk braking systems, parking brakes, & their hydraulic systems. They inspect, adjust, remove, repair, & reinstall such items as brake shoes, disk pads, drums, rotors, wheel & master cylinders, & hydraulic fluid lines. Some specialize in both brake & front-end work.
Transmission technicians adjust, repair, & maintain gear trains, couplings, hydraulic pumps, valve bodies, clutch assemblies, & other parts of automatic transmission systems. Transmissions have become complex & highly sophisticated mechanisms in newer model auto mobiles. Technicians require special training to learn how they function.
Automobile-radiator mechanics clean radiators using caustic solutions. They locate & solder leaks & install new radiator cores. In addition, some radiator mechanics repair car heaters & air conditioners & solder leaks in gas tanks.
Alternative fuel technicians are relatively new additions to the field. This specialty has evolved with the nation’s efforts to reduce its dependence on foreign oil by exploring alternative fuels, such as ethanol & electricity.
As more automobiles rely on a variety of electronic components, technicians have become more proficient in the basics of electronics, even if they are not electronics specialists. Electronic controls & instruments are located in nearly all the systems of today’s cars. Many previously mechanical functions in automobiles are being replaced by electronics, significantly altering the way repairs are per formed. Diagnosing & correcting problems with electronic components often involves the use of specialty tools & computers.
Automobile service technicians use an array of tools in their every day work, ranging from simple hand tools to computerized diagnostic equipment. Technicians supply their own hand tools at an investment of $6,000 - $25,000 or more, depending on their specialty. It’s usually the employer’s responsibility to furnish the larger power tools, engine analyzers, & other test equipment.
To maintain & increase their skills & to keep up with new technology, automobile technicians must regularly read service & repair manuals, shop bulletins, & other publications. They must also be willing to take part in training programs given by manufacturers or at vocational schools. Those who have voluntary certification must periodically retake exams to keep their credentials.
In today’s competitive job market, aspiring automobile service technicians need a high school diploma to land a job that offers growth possibilities, a good salary, & challenges. There is a big demand in the automotive service industry to fill entry-level positions with well- trained, highly skilled persons. Technology demands more from the technician than it did 10 years ago.
In high school, you should take automotive & shop classes, mathematics, English, & computer classes. Adjustments & repairs to many car components require the technician to make numerous computations, for which good mathematical skills are essential. Good reading skills are also valuable, as a technician must do a lot of reading to stay competitive in today’s job market. English classes will pre pare you to handle the many volumes of repair manuals & trade journals you will need to remain informed. Computer skills are also vital, as computers are now common in most repair shops. They keep track of customers’ histories & parts & often detail repair procedures. Use of computers in repair shops will only increase in the future.
Employers today prefer to hire only those who have completed some kind of formal training program in automobile mechanics—usually a minimum of two years. A wide variety of such programs are offered at community colleges, vocational schools, independent organizations, & manufacturers. Many community colleges & vocational schools around the country offer accredited postsecondary education. Postsecondary training programs prepare students through a blend of classroom instruction & hands-on practical experience. They range in length from six months to two years or more, depending on the type of program. Shorter programs usually involve intensive study. Longer programs typically alternate classroom courses with periods of work experience. Some two-year programs include courses on applied mathematics, reading & writing skills, & business practices & lead to an associate’s degree.
Some programs are conducted in association with automobile manufacturers. Students combine work experience with hands-on classroom study of up-to-date equipment & new cars provided by manufacturers. In other programs, students alternate time in the classroom with internships in dealerships or service departments. These students may take up to four years to finish their training, but they become familiar with the latest technology & also earn a mod est salary.
Certification or Licensing
One recognized indicator of quality for entry-level technicians is certification by the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation (NATEF), an affiliate of ASE. NATEF’s goals are to develop, encourage, & improve automotive technical education for students seeking entry-level positions as automobile service technicians. NATEF certifies many postsecondary programs for training throughout the country. Certification is available in the areas of automatic transmission, brakes, electrical / electronic systems, engine performance, engine repair, heating & air conditioning, manual drive train & axles, & suspension & steering. Certification assures students that the program they enroll in meets the standards employers expect from their entry-level employees. ASE certification is not required, but job applicants who are certified have a competitive advantage over those who are not.
To be a successful automobile service technician, you must be patient & thorough in your work; a shoddy repair job may put the driver’s life at risk. You must have excellent troubleshooting skills & be able to deduce logically the cause of system malfunctions.
Many community centers offer general auto maintenance & mechanics workshops where you can practice working on real cars & learn from instructors. Trade magazines are excellent sources for learning what’s new in the industry & can be found at most public libraries or large bookstores. Many public television stations broad- cast automobile maintenance & repair programs that can be of help to beginners to see how various types of cars differ.
Working on cars as a hobby provides valuable firsthand experience in the work of a technician. A part-time job in a repair shop or dealership can give you a feel for the general atmosphere & kinds of
problems technicians face on the job. Oil & tire changes, battery & belt replacement, & even pumping gas may be some of the things you will be asked to do on the job; this work will give you valuable experience before you move on to more complex repairs. Experience with vehicle repair work in the armed forces is another way to pursue your interest in this field.
Student Mechanics: Try Not to Get Hoodwinked at Annual Competition
If you enjoy all things mechanical & love to watch the pit crew at the Indy 500, then you might be interested in the Student Auto Skills competition. The 50-year-old competition, sponsored by the American Automobile Association & Ford Motor Company, offers high school juniors & seniors a chance to compete for over $5 million in scholarships & prizes.
Schools may enter a team of two to eight students per full-time automotive technology instructor. Each participating instructor chooses his or her best automotive technology students to take a written examination administered by the U.S. Department of Education in each state. The scores of the top two students from each school are combined, & this becomes the team/school score. This portion of the competition counts 40 percent in the state finals. The top 10 teams in each state move on to the “hands on” state finals, which are held in late April or early May.
In the “hands on” competition, new vehicles provided by the Ford Motor Company are uniformly monkey-wrenched (e.g., given bad headlights, broken air-conditioning fans, bad breaks, & faulty ignition systems). To win the competition, students must diagnose & repair these problems with the highest level of workmanship & in the shortest amount of time. Winning two-person teams & their instructors go on to compete in the national finals in June.
At the national competition, students take another written examination that tests their automotive know-how. Any mistakes are converted to time demerits, which are added to the teams’ time in the final “hands on” competition.
Students then tackle another group of uniformly tampered with Ford vehicles. A team judge supervises each student team & provides them with new parts upon request. Once the team believes it has fixed every problem with their vehicle, they close the car’s hood & the time clock stops. Students then go for a test drive with the judge to deter mine if they have fixed every loose hose, electrical short, & other problems. At this point they either return to their work area & try to fix the car further or go to the final judging area.
Prizes for students & instructors include scholarships, savings bonds, shop manuals, trophies, & apparel. Schools receive free trips & automotive equipment. The names of all contestants are given to Ford dealers, AAA-affiliated service facilities, & other organizations that need qualified automobile service technicians. Visit the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills website, http://www.autoskills.com for more information about this exciting contest.
Because the automotive industry is so vast, automobile service technicians have many choices concerning type of shop & geographic location. Automobile repairs are needed all over the country, in large cities as well as rural areas.
The majority of automobile service technicians work for automotive dealers & independent automotive repair shops & gasoline service stations. The field offers a variety of other employment options as well. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 18 per cent of automobile service technicians are self-employed. Other employers include franchises such as PepBoys & Midas that offer routine repairs & maintenance, & automotive service departments of automotive & home supply stores. Some automobile service technicians maintain fleets for taxicab & automobile leasing companies or for government agencies with large automobile fleets.
Technicians with experience & /or ASE certification certainly have more career choices. Some master mechanics may go on to teach at technical & vocational schools or at community colleges. Others put in many years working for someone else & go into business for themselves after they have gained the experience to handle many types of repairs & oversee other technicians.
The best way to start out in this field is to attend one of the many post secondary training programs available throughout the country & obtain accreditation. Trade & technical schools usually provide job placement assistance for their graduates. Schools often have contacts with local employers who need to hire well-trained people. Frequently, employers post job openings at nearby trade schools with accredited programs. Job openings are frequently listed on the Internet through regional & national automotive associations or career networks.
A decreasing number of technicians learn the trade on the job as apprentices. Their training consists of working for several years under the guidance of experienced mechanics. Fewer employers today are willing to hire apprentices due to the time & money it takes to train them. Those who do learn their skills on the job will inevitably require some formal training if they wish to advance & stay in step with the changing industry.
Intern programs sponsored by car manufacturers or independent organizations provide students with excellent opportunities to actually work with prospective employers. Internships can provide students with valuable contacts who will be able to recommend future employers once they have completed their training. Many students may even be hired by the shop at which they interned.
Currently employed technicians may be certified by ASE in eight different areas. Those who become certified in all eight areas are known as master mechanics. Although certification is voluntary, it’s a widely recognized standard of achievement for automobile technicians & is highly valued by many employers. Certification also provides the means & opportunity to advance. To maintain their certification, technicians must retake the examination for their specialties every five years. Many employers only hire ASE-accredited technicians & base salaries on the level of the technicians’ accreditation.
With today’s complex automobile components requiring hundreds of hours of study & practice to master, more repair shops prefer to hire specialists. Generalist automobile technicians advance as they gain experience & become specialists. Other technicians advance to diesel repair, where the pay may be higher. Those with good communications & planning skills may advance to shop foreman or service manager at large repair shops or to sales workers at dealer ships. Master mechanics with good business skills often go into business for themselves & open their own shops.
Salary ranges of automobile service technicians vary depending on the level of experience, type of shop the technician works in, & geographic location. Generally, technicians who work in small-town, family-owned gas stations earn less than those who work at dealer ships & franchises in metropolitan areas.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the lowest paid automobile service technicians earned about $7.98 per hour (or $16,600 annually) in 2001. The median hourly salary for auto mobile service technicians was $14.19 (or $29,510 annually) in 2001. Top-paid technicians with experience & certification earned more than $24.39 per hour (or $50,740+ annually) in 2001. Since most technicians work on an hourly basis & frequently work overtime, their salaries can vary significantly. In many repair shops & dealerships, technicians can earn higher incomes by working on commission. In 2001, master technicians who worked on commission earned between $70,000 & $100,000 annually. Employers often guarantee a minimum level of pay in addition to commissions.
Benefit packages vary from business to business. Most technicians receive health insurance & paid vacation days. Additional benefits may include dental, life, & disability insurance & a pension plan. Employers usually pay for a technician’s work clothes & may pay a percentage on hand tools purchased. An increasing number of employers pay for all or most of an employee’s certification training if he or she passes the test. A technician’s salary can increase through yearly bonuses or profit sharing if the business does well.
Depending on the size of the shop & whether it’s an independent or franchised repair shop, dealership, or private business, automobile technicians work with anywhere from two to 20 other technicians. Most shops are well lighted & well ventilated. They can frequently be noisy with running cars & power tools. Minor hand & back injuries are the most common problems of technicians. When reaching in hard-to-get-at places or loosening tight bolts, technicians often bruise, cut, or burn their hands. With caution & experience most technicians learn to avoid hand injuries. Working for long periods of time in cramped or bent positions often results in a stiff back or neck. Technicians also lift many heavy objects that can cause injury if not handled carefully; however, this is becoming less of a problem with new cars, as automakers design smaller & lighter parts to improve fuel economy. Some technicians may experience allergic reactions to solvents & oils used in cleaning, maintenance, & repair. Shops must comply with strict safety procedures set by the Occupational Safety Hazard Administration & Environmental Protection Agency to help employees avoid accidents & injuries.
The U.S. Department of Labor reports that most technicians work a standard 40-hour week, but 30 percent of all technicians work more than 40 hours a week. Some technicians make emergency repairs to stranded automobiles on the roadside during odd hours.
With an estimated 221 million vehicles in operation today, auto mobile service technicians should feel confident that a good percentage will require servicing & repair. Skilled & highly trained technicians will be in particular demand. Less-skilled workers will face tough competition. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that this field will grow as fast as the average, but in some areas, growth could be higher because of a tight labor market. According to ASE, even if school enrollments were at maximum capacity, the demand for automobile service technicians still would exceed the supply in the immediate future. As a result, many shops are beginning to recruit employees while they are still in vocational or even high school.
Another concern for the industry is the automobile industry’s trend toward developing the “maintenance-free” car. Manufacturers are producing high-end cars that require no servicing for their first 100,000 miles. In addition, many new cars are equipped with on- board diagnostics that detect both wear & failure for many of the car’s components, eliminating the need for technicians to perform extensive diagnostic tests. Also, parts that are replaced before they completely wear out prevent further damage from occurring to connected parts that are affected by a malfunction or breakdown. Although this will reduce troubleshooting time & the number of overall repairs, the components that need repair will be more costly & require a more experienced (and hence, more expensive) technician.
Most new jobs for technicians will be at independent service dealers, specialty shops, & franchised new car dealers. Because of the increase of specialty shops, fewer gasoline service stations will hire technicians, & many will eliminate repair services completely. Other opportunities will be available at companies or institutions with private fleets (e.g., cab, delivery, & rental companies, & government agencies & police departments). FOR MORE INFORMATION
For more information on the automotive service industry, contact
Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association
4600 East-West Highway, Suite 300
Bethesda, MD 20814-3415
For industry information & job listings, contact
Automotive Service Association
P0 Box 929
Bedford, TX 76095-0929
For information & statistics on automotive dealers, contact
National Automobile Dealers Association
8400 Westpark Drive
McLean, VA 22102
For information on certified educational programs, careers, & certification, contact
National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation
101 Blue Seal Drive, Suite 101
Leesburg, VA 20175
For information on certification, contact
National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence
101 Blue Seal Drive, SE, Suite 101
Leesburg, VA 20175