Auto Mechanic Career Information
W herever you're going today, whether it's to work, school, or a doctor's appointment, you will likely rely on a vehicle of some type to help you get there. Maybe it's a car, a truck, or even a bus. Regardless of its type, it has probably been serviced, inspected, and repaired by an auto mechanic.
What is an Auto Mechanic?
Auto mechanics are skilled technicians who are responsible for ensuring that the vehicles carrying us from place to place are safe, reliable, and efficient. They provide a vital service, which helps to keep our lives running smoothly.
Although the familiar image of an auto mechanic is of someone with grease-stained coveralls, the changing face of this field means that auto mechanics now work in an increasingly technology-driven environment. Long gone are the days when sockets and wrenches alone were enough to get the job done in an auto repair shop. These days, diagnostic computer equipment, infrared engine analyzers, compression gauges, and other complex devices have been added to the list of tools necessary for working on modern vehicles.
Even the trade's occupational titles are shifting—from "auto mechanic" to "automotive technician"—in order to reflect the fact that the work encompasses more than just the mechanical parts under the hood of a car. Intricate electrical and computer systems are now in charge of everything from fuel consumption to air conditioning to oil pressure, which means technicians are now required to have specialized skills and knowledge.
What Does a Mechanic Do Exactly?
Auto mechanics perform inspections, maintenance, and repairs on vehicles. However, this short answer doesn't do justice to the diverse range of tasks that an auto mechanic carries out. To answer the question "What does a mechanic do?" in full—and to make it easier to understand—it helps to break this job down into sections representing the type of work involved.
Auto mechanics are responsible for performing routine inspections on parts and systems from various vehicles to confirm that they are in good working order. These inspections are a crucial aspect of an auto mechanic's job, because when small tasks go undetected they can snowball into major repairs or even potential safety hazards.
From brakes to cooling systems to lights, there is a wide range of components that an auto mechanic must examine and test. Some inspections can be done visually, but they also often require the mechanic to observe the smells or sounds that a vehicle is making. Additionally, auto mechanics regularly employ complex electronic equipment to test electrical and computer systems.
Depending on the results of these inspections, furthers steps may be required to replace worn parts, top up low fluids, or take care of other issues.
In addition to routine inspections, maintenance tasks are commonplace for an auto mechanic in order to help ensure that vehicles are running at optimal efficiency and to manufacturer specifications.
This work can include oil changes, lubrications, and tire rotations, as well as transmission or coolant fluid flushes. Vehicle maintenance can range from quick and simple to involved and time-consuming, but it is always an important aspect of an auto mechanic's job.
In the past, "tune-ups" were a key maintenance task that would fall under this section. However, as the automotive industry continues shifting toward vehicles that are controlled by complex computer systems, these tune-ups have become essentially unnecessary. Sensors throughout a vehicle can now monitor virtually all systems and components and indicate when there is an issue requiring attention.
This leads to the next section, which is where an automotive mechanic may spend the majority of his or her time.
Troubleshooting and Repair
Your car starts making a clunking sound. The steering wheel starts pulling to one side. Or the little light shaped like an engine illuminates your dashboard. These are all perfect examples of situations in which an auto mechanic needs to enter the picture, ready to diagnose and repair vehicle problems.
In order to carry out this challenging and often-complicated work, auto mechanics must know vehicles—including their individual components and systems—inside and out. They must be familiar with computerized diagnostic equipment and prepared to manually troubleshoot any issues. This can include test driving a vehicle, visually examining the suspected area of trouble, and carrying out other methods of investigation.
Once the problem is understood, the mechanic must explain it to the vehicle owner and estimate the time and cost of the repair. They must ensure that the necessary parts are on hand and, then, carry out the work. Repairs can range from changing a small part (such as a belt or a hose) to replacing or rebuilding an entire engine or transmission.
Some mechanics will even specialize in a particular component or vehicle system, which can allow them to obtain a high level of expertise in a certain area of repair.
Common specialties can include:
- Exhaust systems
- Air conditioning systems
- High performance engines
- Steering and drive trains
- Tires and wheels
- Alternative fuel systems
When auto mechanics aren't under the hood of a vehicle carrying out the tasks listed above, they can often be found handling the multitude of other jobs that are required to run an auto repair shop. Depending on the size of the business they're working in, they can be responsible for everything from ordering parts to taking payments from customers to working with computer software applications. However, mechanics are more likely to perform these tasks in smaller shops; larger shops typically have administrative or front desk staff for this purpose.
What Kind of Education Does a Mechanic Need?
Technically, an education is not compulsory to perform auto mechanic work. However, most employers will not hire those without formal training. Many employers look for automotive mechanics or technicians who possess a certificate, diploma, or associate degree from an accredited post-secondary institution. They also prefer those with ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) certification.
Typically, automotive technology programs include both hands-on and theoretical training in order to provide students with the practical skills and knowledge necessary for working in a shop setting. The intricacies of various manufacturers are often covered, along with shop practices, safety, and more. Plus, most automotive programs include an internship or practicum component, which can allow you to gain valuable practical experience.
In addition to specific automotive training, you can expect to receive instruction in math, computers, English, business, and customer service.
How Can I Become an Auto Mechanic?
If you're wondering, "How can I become an auto mechanic?" there are a couple of different options. However, obtaining a solid education is, by far, the best way to get started. It used to be that working at an automotive shop and relying on job-site training was a viable option for becoming an auto mechanic. But, as automotive technology continues to advance and evolve, the skills and knowledge required to perform this vital role have grown exponentially.
An education from an accredited post-secondary institution can help you begin your auto mechanic career on the right foot. You can have the opportunity to gain practical experience within both classroom and shop settings, where you can learn to work with industry-current tools and technologies.
There can also be added benefits to formal automotive training from a college or technical school. These can include incentives such as career placement assistance or professional tool kits. Plus, you can often graduate ready to obtain industry certification, and many schools have strong connections with industry employers, which could provide job leads and networking opportunities.
Alternately, some high schools offer in-depth automotive training programs, which can prepare you to seek entry-level automotive positions upon graduation. However, the quality of these programs varies greatly, so if you're considering this option it is important to choose a high school that is participating in the Automotive Youth Education Service (AYES). These programs are accredited by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (NATEF).
Can You Tell Me How to Become a High Performance Mechanic?
If you're interested in the automotive field but would rather spend your days working on race cars rather than minivans, then you might want to know how to become a high performance mechanic. Pursuing a career as a high performance automotive technician or mechanic generally involves one of two routes.
First, you could choose to complete a general automotive program and try to land an entry-level position in a high performance or race shop. This can be a good option if you're not 100 percent sure that high performance is for you and you're not ready to commit to one specific niche.
Another possibility to explore is a specialized high performance automotive technology program. This choice can allow you to get a head start working with high performance racing technologies.
While race cars and high-end automobiles generally operate on the same principles as other vehicles, the specific parts are often more complex, more delicate, and much more expensive. This is one of the reasons that a specialized education can help you get your foot in the door of one of these exclusive shops.
If your dream is to lead the pit crew of a racing team or to spend your days fine-tuning luxury sports cars, then high performance training is a smart choice.
How Much is the Course Fee to Become an Auto Mechanic?
The course fee to become an auto mechanic can range from as little as about $2,500 to well over $30,000. However, it's important to keep in mind that not all programs are created equal, and opting for the least expensive program isn't necessarily a wise choice.
Some programs include professional tool kits (which are not usually supplied by employers) and other necessary supplies as part of the cost. Auto mechanic schools may also cover materials and examination fees associated with ASE or other certifications. In addition, some schools have a strong reputation in the industry, which can help you upon graduation.
In order to understand the full cost of car mechanic courses, an important step should include considering what you are getting for your money.
Here are a few questions to ask:
- Will you be learning in an up-to-date facility and working with industry-current equipment and technology?
- What credential(s) will you be graduating with?
- Is the program accredited by an industry-respected organization, such as the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (NATEF)?
- Will you be prepared for industry certification?
- Are licensing and examination fees included?
- Are books and supplies included?
Also, it's important to note that your costs could be reduced by exploring the opportunity for grants and scholarships. Most schools can provide you with information and assistance in this area.
How Long Does It Take to Become an Auto Mechanic?
Depending on the route you choose to take, the length of time can vary. By opting to enroll in an automotive technology program, you can expect to be in school for anywhere from approximately six months to two years—depending on whether you want to work toward a certificate, diploma, or associate degree.
Generally, two-year programs can help you gain some or all of the experience required to take ASE certification examinations, meaning you could be a certified automotive technician in about two years.
Alternately, it is possible to receive on-the-job training. However, entry-level positions that don't require education or experience are almost always very low paying. While this choice can allow you to get out into the workplace right away, you likely won't have the opportunity to develop your skills at the same pace or receive a well-rounded skill set.
Is Certification Necessary to Become an Auto Mechanic?
While certification isn't legally required, ASE certification is considered an industry-standard method of measuring an automotive technician's knowledge and abilities. Like many professions, possessing certification can often lead to increased career opportunities as well as higher earning potential.
There is a wide range of certification examinations to choose from, allowing you to pursue general and/or specialized certification. Specific areas of certification include brakes, engine repair, suspension and steering, automatic transmission, and more. In addition, ASE-Certified Master Automobile Technician status can be achieved by completing eight required examinations.
One thing to remember is that, in addition to initial testing, recertification must be completed every five years in order to ensure your skills and knowledge are kept up-to-date. And, although attending classes is not mandatory to take these examinations, two years of experience in the field is a prerequisite. Formal training, along with a work experience practicum, can often satisfy this requirement.
How Much Does a Mechanic Make in a Year?
Pay, of course, isn't everything. But it can be one of the deciding factors in making a career choice. So, "How much does a mechanic make in a year?" is probably an important question to ask before embarking on a future in this field.
While there is a wide range of variables that can influence pay, here's a look at national estimates from 2010 to help you get an idea of what this profession can offer: *
- The lowest earning (bottom 10 percent) can expect to earn approximately $9.71 per hour, or $20,200 annually.
- The average (or median) wage comes in at $17.21 per hour, which stacks up to $35,790 per year.
- The highest paid (top 10 percent) can earn upwards of $28.65 per hour, or $59,590 each year.
Generally speaking, an entry-level automotive mechanic can expect to start at the lower end of this spectrum. However, pay also depends on numerous other factors, which can include:
- Geographic location—If you live in an area with a lower cost of living, you can expect wages to reflect that.
- Demand—If there is an abundance of available automotive mechanic jobs where you live, you can look forward to receiving a higher salary.
- Education—While there are opportunities for entry-level work in the automotive field for those without an education, securing formal training can help you command a higher wage from the start.
- Certification—Like most industries, certification can demonstrate your level of skill to potential employers and can often allow shops to bill at a higher hourly rate for your work.
- Experience—Just as certification can increase wage potential, experience can offer the same boost.
- Specialization—Depending on whether you possess general or specialized skills, your earning potential could vary. Often, being an expert in a particular vehicle component or system can come with a higher salary (depending on the area of specialization you choose).
In addition, there are different ways of being compensated in this field. "What does an auto car mechanic earn?" isn't a simple question to answer since not all auto mechanics are paid a regular hourly wage. Although some are paid this way, many are paid a salary or are on a flat rate system instead. It's important to understand the difference; it can greatly affect what you see on your paycheck.
What Does It Mean for a Mechanic to Be Paid Flat Rate?
Flat rate pay is similar to what is referred to as "piece work" since it is based on the jobs carried out by an automotive mechanic or technician rather than the actual time that is taken to perform the job. Automotive shops use software or reference books to find the pre-determined time a job is expected to take for the specific year, make, and model of a vehicle. Since automotive shops generally charge an hourly shop rate to customers, the mechanic is typically paid a percentage of the time it is expected to take, multiplied by the hourly shop rate.
Now, what does it mean for a mechanic to be paid flat rate in terms of pros and cons? It means that, depending on a number of variables, this compensation system can either allow an automotive mechanic to bring home a higher paycheck or a lower one. Factoring in work ethic, experience, proper tools, and reliability of estimated times, jobs can be completed in more or less time than the references suggest. So, if a job takes five hours longer than the pre-determined calculation, the auto mechanic isn't going to be paid any overtime. On the other hand, if the job is expected to take three hours and it's completed in an hour, the auto mechanic will still be paid the full three hours for the repairs. They can then start working on the next project and have the opportunity to accumulate additional pay.
What is the Outlook for Auto Mechanic Jobs?
Overall, this industry is growing, with an expected increase in employment of five percent between 2008 and 2018.** Although this is a slower rate than the average for all occupations, the predicted number does not reflect the number of auto mechanics and technicians who will be retiring (and will, therefore, be creating additional job opportunities).
As can be expected, auto mechanics with a post-secondary education and certification will be in a better position for securing employment, and there will be more competition for positions that do not require formal training. In addition, certain areas of specialization—such as hybrid-fuel technology, post-warranty repair, and electronics—are anticipated to be in-demand.
Plus, career opportunities can vary depending on your geographic location. For example, as of May 2010, these five states had the highest levels of employment (not including self-employed individuals) for this field:
- New York
Where Does an Auto Mechanic Work?
Auto mechanics can find work in a wide range of automotive settings, such as:
- Automotive repair shops
- Automobile dealerships
- Automotive parts retail stores
- Gas stations
- High performance shops
- Private and government shops
- Rental car companies
- Racing teams
Dealerships typically contain an automotive shop to carry out warranty work and provide specialty service for their brand of vehicles. For those with an interest in a specific make, this can provide an ideal option, allowing the opportunity to gain concentrated knowledge of a manufacturer's distinct systems, procedures, and parts.
General automotive shops service all types of passenger vehicles and can be a good place to gain broad experience. However, both small and large shops can offer pros and cons.
A larger shop may have specific duties for each mechanic, limiting the chance to learn all aspects of the job. On the up side, large shops are likely to have more resources, such as additional tools and equipment, as well as a larger pool of talent to learn from.
Smaller shops are often considered an ideal choice for beginning an auto mechanic career since small businesses tend to require individuals to take on many responsibilities, which can mean seeing a project through from start to finish. This type of setting can allow new mechanics to work on a wide range of vehicles. It can also provide the opportunity to learn how to handle a number of different repairs and procedures.
Some shops tailor themselves to servicing a specific vehicle component or system, such as transmissions, mufflers, or tires. Pursuing work in a shop of this nature could be perfect for someone looking to gain experience in a particular area. However, this can restrict the opportunity for developing well-rounded knowledge and skills.
In addition, some shops specialize in niche areas of the automotive market. This can include race cars, muscle cars, imports, and 4x4s. Typically, these types of shops work with aftermarket and performance products that require specialized knowledge.
How Long Does an Auto Mechanic Work a Week?
Most automotive shops, especially dealerships, are open normal business hours, which makes for a typical 40-hour workweek. However, an increasing number of shops are open on weekends and evenings, which could translate into longer shifts and/or weekend shifts.
Also, some auto mechanics work longer than 40 hours per week due to different pay schedules, such as the flat rate pay system mentioned above.
Since a number of auto mechanics choose the entrepreneurial route, there is also the potential of working the longer hours often associated with being a small business owner.
Now That I Know How to Become an Auto Mechanic, Can You Tell Me How to Be a Better Mechanic?
After learning how to become an auto mechanic, you may have the urge to learn how to be a better mechanic in order to advance your skills, knowledge, and opportunities. The key is to stay sharp and keep learning.
This may be the most important piece of advice for a successful career as an auto mechanic since the ever-changing technology behind today's automobiles requires auto mechanics and technicians to stay current with their knowledge of processes, systems, and new technologies.
Continuing your automotive education can involve anything from making sure your industry certifications are up-to-date to reading trade publications on a regular basis. Some employers offer continuing education to employees in order to help them develop advanced skills or to ensure that their skills are kept up-to-par. Additional education can be obtained through various organizations. However, a popular choice is the Continuing Automotive Service Education (CASE) program, which is administered by NATEF.
Plus, many manufacturers provide training directly related to specific systems and vehicle components that are new or require specialized knowledge.
Overall, just keep up. Try to lend a hand with jobs that are new or you don't see very often. Talk to co-workers, read industry discussion forums, and do whatever it takes to stay in the loop. For most auto mechanics who enjoy their work, this part comes easy.
What are the Upsides and Downsides of an Auto Mechanic Career?
Now that you have an understanding of how to become a mechanic, it's probably a good idea to take a good look at the positives and negatives of this career choice.
- Auto mechanics tend to meet a lot of new people and have the opportunity to carry out a multitude of different jobs throughout their workday.
- An integral aspect of this occupation includes diagnosing and troubleshooting mechanical issues, and problem solving can be fun and challenging.
- With experience and/or further education, many auto mechanics advance their careers to the management level or even pursue the option of becoming a shop owner or instructor.
- Unless they work in a one-person shop, auto mechanics usually work in a team-based environment. This means having the experience and knowledge of others to draw from.
- Automotive work can take its toll on the body. Getting into small and, sometimes, awkward spaces, standing for long periods of time, lifting heavy objects, and being exposed to chemicals can all be part of the job.
- While many auto mechanics work regular business hours, some shops, such as oil change centers or larger general shops, tend to be open longer hours, which can mean putting in time during evenings and weekends.
- Though this may be viewed as either a pro or a con, this profession requires constant learning and updating of skills. Falling behind on changes in automotive technology can mean not knowing how to complete a repair.
- Since vehicle safety is an important issue, auto mechanics are relied upon to ensure that vehicle repairs are carried out not only efficiently, but also accurately. Not replacing a part correctly or failing to fasten a bolt in place could have potentially expensive or dangerous consequences.
Where Do I Go from Here?
Now that you have spent some time exploring auto mechanic career information and learning how to become a car mechanic, this is probably a good opportunity to consider an important next step: researching potential schools. A great place to begin is this guide to automotive mechanic schools, which can allow you to connect with schools and request more information today.