Motorcycle Mechanic Career Information
F ew objects stir as much passion in their owners as motorcycles. They're fast, sound like thunder, and provide an unmatched sense of freedom for those brave enough to ride them. But motorcycles, especially modern ones, are complex machines. They require regular maintenance, and they sometimes break down. That's why motorcycle mechanics are so important. Many bikers just want to ride. So they need passionate and qualified people trained in motorcycle repair to fix up their bikes when things go wrong. If you have what it takes, you could be one of them. You could even wind up with a career in the motorcycle industry that goes beyond just repair.
Is There a Difference Between a Motorcycle Mechanic and a Motorcycle Technician?
No, there isn't a difference. Motorcycle mechanics are also sometimes called motorcycle technicians or motorcycle service technicians. They are all the same thing, although some professionals in the field do prefer to be called motorcycle technicians (especially if they work for a motorcycle manufacturer or national racing team).
What Does a Motorcycle Mechanic Do?
Some people describe the work of motorcycle mechanics as "wrenching" (i.e., merely turning a wrench all day to perform routine maintenance or repairs on bikes). But that kind of description is unfair and too simplistic. Motorcycle mechanics don't just mindlessly use tools; they solve problems—often, complex ones.
Plus, many motorcycle mechanics work on more than just bikes. (They often have the skills to work on ATVs, snowmobiles, and other motorized vehicles powered by small engines.)
Depending on where they work and the level of their expertise, motorcycle mechanics perform duties such as:
- Visually inspecting motorcycles
- Listening to engines for signs of problems
- Conducting tests on generator output, ignition timing, and engine performance
- Test-driving motorcycles to help pinpoint the source of any problems
- Diagnosing mechanical or electrical problems
- Inspecting and testing any malfunctioning parts
- Discussing diagnosed problems, necessary parts and labor, and estimated costs with clients
- Repairing broken parts
- Replacing parts that can't be fixed
- Adjusting or repairing motorcycle subassemblies such as transmissions, drive chains, forks, and brakes
- Dismantling engines or subassemblies
- Reviewing the technical manuals of motorcycle manufacturers
- Performing routine maintenance (e.g., replacing spark plugs, changing oil, lubricating parts, etc.)
- Scraping carbon build-up off of pistons, valves, cylinders, and other parts
- Performing complete engine overhauls
- Hammering out bends or dents in motorcycle frames
- Welding any breaks or tears in motorcycle frames
- Completing any necessary paperwork for warranty or insurance repairs
- Properly disposing of hazardous substances
- Keeping good records of all work performed and parts used
- Ordering spare parts
- Assembling, inspecting, and test-riding new motorcycles
- Fitting custom accessories to new motorcycles
Motorcycle technicians must use a large variety of tools—in different sizes as well as in both metric and SAE standards—to perform their duties. Plus, special tools are sometimes required that only work with specific makes and models. Some of the tools used in servicing motorcycles include:
- Computerized testing equipment
- Long socket wrenches
- Short socket wrenches
- Drive ratchets
- Deep sockets
- Short sockets
- Impact sockets
- Brake line wrenches
- Allen wrenches
- Air tools
- Heat guns
Motorcycle mechanics can become certified to work on (or even specialize in) the bikes of individual motorcycle manufacturers such as:
Where Can Motorcycle Mechanics Work?
With the right skills, knowledge, and experience, motorcycle mechanics can find work with a variety of different types of employers, including:
- Motorcycle dealerships
- Motorcycle repair shops
- Motorcycle racing teams
- Motorcycle manufacturers
- Automotive salvage yards
- Marine dealerships
After plenty of experience, some motorcycle mechanics also choose to open their own repair shops.
How Much Does a Motorcycle Mechanic Make?
Motorcycle mechanics don't get into this field for the money. They do it because they love motorcycles and enjoy the kind of work that lets them use their hands as well as their minds. The reality is that the typical motorcycle mechanic salary is relatively low when compared to some other trades.
So, just how much does a motorcycle mechanic make?
According to national estimates from 2011, the median hourly wage of motorcycle mechanics was $15.58, which translates to $32,410 annually. *
Motorcycle mechanics at the beginning of their careers, however, can expect to earn substantially less until they gain more experience. Starting pay for new technicians tends to be the equivalent of $10 to $11 per hour.
With a little luck, lots of experience, and well-refined skills and expertise, some motorcycle mechanics are able to make $50,000 or more per year.
Here are some other important things to keep in mind about motorcycle mechanic pay:
- Most motorcycle mechanics are not paid a regular hourly wage or salary. Rather, they get paid a flat rate or commission for each client repair or piece of work they perform. This means that they only get paid when there is actually work to do. So when the volume of work in a repair shop decreases, their pay does too. Of course, there are exceptions to this structure.
- Due to the commission pay structure, motorcycle mechanics must usually perform their work quickly. A good paycheck is often dependent on turning around many jobs each day.
- Smaller repair shops frequently cannot afford to offer employee benefits.
- No matter where they work, motorcycle mechanics are usually responsible for purchasing their own hand tools, which can total several thousand dollars for a good set. And because tools gets lost, damaged, or stolen, they typically must purchase at least one new tool every week. In fact, it is common to have to spend $100 or more per week on tools. (Employers generally only provide the more complex and expensive items such as power tools and diagnostic testing equipment.)
- Typically speaking, the average Harley-Davidson mechanic salary is going to be the same as the salary or annual wages of any other motorcycle mechanic. Specializing in only one manufacturer rarely leads to better pay. It's usually more advantageous to have the skills to work on the bikes of multiple manufacturers since only a lucky few get to work directly for a single manufacturer.
What Kinds of Qualifications Does a Motorcycle Mechanic Need?
In most states, a motorcycle mechanic doesn't technically need any formal qualifications to start training or performing work. But it is always best to check with the state you plan to work in to make sure. Some states do impose requirements.
For instance, a few states, such as Michigan and Hawaii, require motorcycle mechanics to obtain special state licensing or certification before they can perform work for the public. Getting state certification usually involves paying a fee and passing a written exam. Even trainees sometimes require a special permit.
Beyond any state requirements, motorcycle mechanics often must obtain individual manufacturer certifications to perform warranty or insurance work on specific makes and models. But it's important to know that there is no professional sanctioning body that certifies all motorcycle technicians. Rather, individual manufacturers award certifications themselves via special classes and workshops (e.g., Harley-Davidson awards Harley certifications and Honda awards Honda certifications). Some employers pay to send their mechanics to such workshops.
Formal education from a post-secondary school isn't absolutely necessary to get started in the industry, but it is usually encouraged by employers as a way to learn the basics of motorcycle repair. Some employers are willing to take on apprentices who have no prior experience, but such opportunities can be hard to find unless you are very persistent, have your own tools, and can demonstrate your commitment and general mechanical aptitude.
At minimum, a motorcycle mechanic usually must have at least a high school diploma to get started, as well as a license for driving motorcycles. Successful motorcycle technicians also tend to possess the following:
- A genuine passion for motorcycles
- Exceptional problem-solving abilities
- Strong hand-eye coordination
- Good hearing
- Basic math skills
- Good reading skills
- A knowledge of basic electronics
- An eye for detail
- Basic computer literacy
- Good hand and finger dexterity
- Physical stamina
- Good listening and verbal communication skills
- The ability to follow detailed instructions
- A strong safety mindset
- Good judgment and reasoning skills
- A persistent desire to learn new things
- Good time management skills
- The patience to push through obstacles
- A practical mindset
- The ability to work independently and under pressure
- A tolerance for grease, chemicals, dust, and noise
Welding is also a great skill to have as a motorcycle mechanic. And if you ever intend to open your own repair shop, then a business degree can be very helpful as well.
Can You Tell Me How to Become a Motorcycle Mechanic?
If you want to know how to become a motorcycle mechanic, then you need to understand that what works for one person might not work for another. You'll need to weigh the options and consider how each one aligns with your own personal circumstances.
Today, the most common way to get started in this field is to attend a post-secondary institution that offers a diploma, certificate, or associate's degree in motorcycle service technology. Most programs take one year or less to complete, except for associate's degree programs which take two years.
Another way to begin a career as a motorcycle mechanic involves finding an employer who is willing to take you on as an apprentice. In this scenario, you get paid as you learn the trade. And some employers will also pay for some formal schooling to help you learn the basics or to gain specific manufacturer certifications. Such employers, however, are increasingly rare in many regions.
Home study courses in motorcycle repair, usually offered online, are another way to learn the theory and basic fundamentals of motorcycle service technology. However, such courses often lack a supervised hands-on component, which is vital for developing the physical skills that are so necessary.
Here are some other important things to consider about becoming a motorcycle mechanic:
- Getting formal training at a reputable school can ensure that you learn how to do things the right way. Training as an apprentice can also be an excellent way to learn the trade, but you have to make sure that your employer is truly committed to your development and isn't simply teaching you shortcuts or bad habits. Plus, the best jobs often go to those who have undergone formal training.
- A few schools have selective admission policies, which means that you may need to be currently employed as an apprentice before you can be admitted to certain motorcycle programs.
- You might only care to know how to become a Harley mechanic or how to become a mechanic for another particular manufacturer. But it's important to realize that the process will be essentially the same regardless of whether you wish to specialize in just one manufacturer or in a broader-but-still-selective category such as Asian makes, European makes, or off-road bikes.
- It's a smart idea to ask those who work at respected dealerships as well as reputable shop owners in your area for their advice on schooling options and other ways of getting started in the trade. Sometimes all it takes to get people talking is offering to buy them lunch in exchange for answering your questions.
- Identifying the repair shops and dealerships that have excellent reputations is a step that shouldn't be ignored.
- Even if you get formal schooling, you can expect to learn much more while actually on the job than you did in school. Nothing can ever replace doing it all for real. And you will always learn something new, no matter how much experience you build up. An amazing variety of different things can go wrong with motorcycles.
- Depending on the school you attend, you might have the opportunity to meet important industry contacts such as manufacturer representatives. Such contacts can make all the difference in your career development since, everything else being equal, success in the motorcycle industry is frequently about who you know. You'll need to make as many friends in the industry as you can.
- No matter where you begin your career, you will have to start at the bottom and work your way up. Don't expect to be overhauling engines right away. It's more likely that, at first, you'll be doing things like pushing a broom, uncrating new motorcycles, performing routine motorcycle maintenance, or installing simple items such as handlebars, levers, mirrors, and front wheels. Seasoned motorcycle mechanics often recommend easing into the trade this way. You'll need to be willing to learn from more experienced motorcycle techs without acting like you already know it all.
- Big-name dealerships can be a good place to work and make important industry contacts since manufacturer representatives sometimes visit. Staying visible with such representatives is especially important if you dream of landing a job with a popular manufacturer or national motorcycle racing team.
- When choosing a program, it's a good idea to consider whether you will have the opportunity to learn how to work on other small-engine vehicles such as snowmobiles, ATVs, and jet skis. Depending on the region you live in, having the skills to work on more than motorcycles can help ensure that you generate enough income when it isn't peak motorcycle season.
- You can sometimes get extra practice at developing your skills by checking out a motorcycle salvage yard and offering to dismantle bikes for them.
- It can take at least three to five years of full-time, hands-on experience to gain a respectable level of proficiency in all of the different aspects of motorcycle repair.
How Much Does Motorcycle Mechanic School Cost?
Compared to other trades, there are relatively few schools offering programs in motorcycle repair. Good programs do exist, but they range in cost depending on the type of school, the location, quality of school facilities, and the type of credential awarded. Most programs in motorcycle service technology grant a diploma or certificate, but it is also sometimes possible to find one that grants an associate's degree.
Therefore, depending on the program you choose, tuition and fees could cost anywhere from about $3,000 to $25,000 or more. On top of that, you might be required to purchase tools and supplies such as:
- Safety footwear
- Welding gloves and beanie
- Safety goggles
- Shop coveralls or smocks
- A clipboard
- A calculator
- Various parts and other supplies as needed for different projects
Financial aid is usually available for those who qualify.
What Can I Expect to Learn While Training to Become a Motorcycle Mechanic?
Whether you choose to begin your training at a vocational school or through an apprenticeship, you can expect to learn motorcycle repair theory and hands-on physical skills (unless the program is strictly online). Some schools only cover the basics, whereas other schools allow you to focus on a single motorcycle manufacturer (such as BMW or Harley-Davidson) once you've passed the basics.
Most programs last about one year and are designed to help you learn about subjects such as:
- Two- and four-stroke engine fundamentals
- Electrical systems
- Fuel systems
- Suspension systems
- Brake systems
- Chassis systems
- Exhaust systems
- Ignition systems
- Transmission and clutches
- Hand and shop tools
- Workplace professionalism
- Hazardous materials
- Workplace safety
- Verbal and written communication
- Diagnostic methods
- Maintenance and repair methods
- Make and model identification
- Dirt bikes, mopeds, scooters, and ATVs
- Basic welding
Some programs also incorporate a hands-on apprenticeship at an experienced repair shop.
What are the Pros and Cons of Being a Motorcycle Mechanic?
Every trade has its upsides and downsides. Motorcycle repair is no exception. Being a motorcycle mechanic is challenging, but plenty of people in the field have turned their love of motorcycles into lasting careers. A whole lot depends on your attitude and level of passion. Here are some of the most common benefits and drawbacks of working as a motorcycle mechanic:
- Mind and body engagement—Repairing motorcycles involves using your brain as well as your hands to solve complex problems. It can be a totally immersive experience that produces personal satisfaction and a full sense of being alive, engaged, and useful.
- A feeling of autonomy—The sense of independence that comes from working with a motorcycle one-on-one can make the job a very pleasing experience.
- Potential for self-employment—With enough experience, motorcycle mechanics have the option of running their own repair shops and greatly increasing their income potential and independence.
- Skills that transfer—Motorcycle repair can be a good entry point into other mechanical trades. With additional training, many of the skills can be transferred into trades such as auto mechanics, diesel mechanics, or heavy vehicle repair.
- Physical demands—Motorcycle mechanics are prone to a variety of physical injuries due to lifting heavy objects, squatting all day, using repetitive motions, and being exposed to harsh chemicals, exhaust fumes, loud noises, and toxic dust.
- Income fluctuations—Due to seasonal downtimes and a commission-based pay structure, many motorcycle mechanics have inconsistent and unpredictable incomes, which can be problematic in trying to plan their personal finances.
- Diminished enjoyment of your own motorcycle(s)—Since many motorcycle technicians work long hours, they often don't have much time to ride or work on their own bikes. And when they do have the time, they sometimes don't feel a passion for it due to feeling burned out from working on other people's bikes. (Friends and family might also want you to work on their bikes during your off time.) As a result, some motorcycle mechanics end up making it a hobby instead of their daily job so that they can regain and hold on to their passion.
- Expensive tools—It's inevitable that tools get stolen, lost, or damaged. And a model of bike that you've never worked on before might require special tools that can only be used on that bike. So it's common for motorcycle mechanics to have to spend a sizable portion of their paychecks on expensive new tools.
What is the Job Outlook for Motorcycle Mechanics?
The demand for motorcycle mechanics is expected to remain high for the foreseeable future. In fact, employment of motorcycle mechanics is projected to increase by 24 percent between 2010 and 2020, which is faster than the average for all occupations. **
Most jobs in this field are likely to be found in the motorcycle dealer industry. And those who get formal post-secondary training will probably have the best job prospects.
Beyond the position of motorcycle mechanic, those with the right skills, experience, connections, and attitude can advance or transfer into other positions within the industry, such as:
- Master service technician
- Service writer
- Service manager
- Shop foreman
- Shop owner
- Racing team technician
- Sales representative
- Manufacturer representative
How Can I Get Started?
Visit a motorcycle repair shop or dealership and talk with a few experienced motorcycle technicians to get their advice. (Take them to lunch if you have to.) Or, if think you are ready to get started now, then check out this list of motorcycle mechanic schools to get a head start on finding the ones that offer programs in your area. With any luck, you could soon be turning your passion for motorcycles into a lasting career.
* The Occupational Information Network (O*NET), website last accessed on February 19, 2013.
** Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, website last accessed on February 15, 2013.