Auto Mechanic Career and Education Overview
Auto mechanics play an extremely important role in today's busy society. And the demand for qualified technicians is high. People rely on professionals to keep their vehicles running smoothly and efficiently, and value a good mechanic who they can trust.
You've already got an interest in working on vehicles. Now you just need training that will help you master the skills of the trade. You can get started immediately by finding an automotive technician school. And if you've got questions about training, job outlook, and what to expect when you get to work, we've covered the bases for you below.
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.
The changing face of this dynamic field means that 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 more and more frequently 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 technological skills and knowledge.
What are the Typical Job Duties?
Routine inspections on parts and systems from various vehicles are performed to confirm that they are in good working order. These inspections are crucial, 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 must be examined and tested. Some inspections can be done visually, but they also often require the mechanic to take note of the smells or sounds that a vehicle is making. Additionally, complex electronic equipment is used 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 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 the 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
In order to carry out this challenging and often-complicated work, 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
What Kind of Training Will I Need?
Many employers look for automotive mechanics or technicians who possess a certificate, diploma, or associate degree from an accredited school. They also tend to 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 understanding necessary for working in a shop setting. The details of various manufacturers are often covered, along with shop practices, safety, and more.
Some of the specific course areas can include:
Automotive Parts and Systems
- Engines and drive trains
- Automatic and manual transmissions
- Air conditioning and heating
- Troubleshooting, diagnosing, and servicing electrical and mechanical systems
- Performing oil changes and lubrications
- Working with electronic diagnostic equipment and systems
- Optimizing engine performance
- Correcting vehicle wheel alignment
Business and Administration
- Service operations
- Cost estimates
- Repair order writing
- Warranty policies
- Personnel management
- Business management
- Customer service
Plus, most programs include an internship or practicum component, which can allow you to gain valuable practical experience within an actual automotive repair business.
Can You Tell Me How to Become a High Performance Mechanic?
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, or if you're not ready to commit to one specific niche area.
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 started at one of these exclusive shops.
How Much is Tuition?
Tuition 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 the best choice.
Some programs include professional tool kits (which are not usually supplied by employers) and other necessary supplies as part of the cost. Some schools may also cover materials and examination fees associated with ASE or other certifications. In addition, certain schools have a strong reputation in the industry, which can help you upon graduation.
An important step in choosing a program should include considering what you are getting for your money.
Here are a few questions to ask:
- Will I be learning in an up-to-date facility and working with industry-current equipment and technology?
- What credential(s) will I be graduating with?
- Is the program accredited by an industry-respected organization, such as the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (NATEF)?
- Will I 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 Will Training Take?
Depending on the route you choose to take, the length of time can vary. You can likely 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.
Will I Need Certification?
While it isn't legally required, ASE certification is considered an industry-standard method of measuring a 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 exams 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 exams.
What is the Average Salary?
While there is a wide range of variables that can influence pay, here's a look at national estimates from 2012 to help you get an idea of what this profession can offer:*
- The average (or median) salary comes in at $36,610.
- The top 10 percent earned $60,070 annually.
Pay also depends on numerous other factors, which can include:
- Geographic location—If you live in an area with a higher cost of living, you can expect wages to reflect that.
- Demand—If there is an abundance of available mechanic jobs where you live, you can look forward to receiving a higher salary.
- 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. Although some are paid in hourly wages, many are paid a salary or are on a flat rate system instead.
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 rather than the actual time that is taken to perform the job. Auto 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 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.
What is the Job Outlook?
Overall, this industry is growing, with an expected increase in employment of nine percent between 2012 and 2022.** As can be expected, auto mechanics with formal training and certification will be in a better position for securing employment.
Where Can I Work?
Mechanics can find work in a wide range of settings, such as:
- Repair shops
- Auto parts retail stores
- Gas stations
- High performance shops
- Private and government shops
- Rental car companies
- Racing teams
Dealerships typically contain an auto 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.
Large shops are also 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.
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.
What are the Typical Work Hours?
Most automotive shops, especially dealerships, are open during 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 mechanics work longer than 40 hours per week due to different pay schedules, such as the flat rate pay system mentioned above.
With the entrepreneurial route, there is also the potential of working the longer hours often associated with being a small business owner.
What are the Job's Benefits?
- Auto professionals 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 technicians 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, mechanics usually work in a team-based environment. This means having the experience and knowledge of others to draw from.
* Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics.
** Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition.