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A Day in the Life of a Auto Mechanic

Auto mechanics repair and maintain cars. Some mechanics work on all parts of any car, while others specialize in one area or on one type of car. The most challenging aspect of car repair is often the mechanic's favorite part: diagnosing the problem. Speed and accuracy in diagnosis and quoting prices to the customer are crucial if the mechanic intends to keep long-term clients. The mechanic examines the engine while it is running (if possible) to see if his initial assumptions are correct. Electronic diagnostic equipment is useful but the good mechanic can tell a lot by using eyes, ears--even nose--as he searches for problems and potential hazards. Sometimes he repairs parts, but if the part is worn or damaged, he replaces it. Some mechanics compare their field to that of the physician, because most people come in only when their car is in dire straits, not when regular preventive maintenance could have avoided the problems altogether. When people come in for an automotive check-up, mechanics often replace worn parts before they become hazardous to the driver, even though drivers can be suspicious of mechanics who recommend the replacement of parts that haven't stopped functioning. The best mechanics have mastery of a wide variety of integrated skills: electrical systems (a car's wiring is more complicated than an average home's); computerized electronics (a television set seems simple by comparison); fuel systems and refrigeration (a car's "plumbing" is a Byzantine maze of tubes). Auto mechanics proudly compare themselves to doctors (though not, unfortunately, in salary range), since they mainly see people with complaints; but whereas the human body and its problems have remained essentially unchanged for millennia, the designs of cars change every year. As a result, the job requires more preparation than ever before. More and more, cars are controlled by electronic instruments, so mechanics are using computers constantly. "Computers have become as much a part of the tool box as wrenches," said one mechanic. Most auto mechanics intern while still in automotive repair school, then work full time at the same dealerships. They read trade papers daily to keep abreast of changes and trends in their industry. As they gain experience they can move into higher-paying, specialized positions. They can also rise to the ranks of supervisor or manager, particularly if they have strong interpersonal skills to calm cranky customers who are displeased by high service bills and inconvenience.

Paying Your Dues

The days of the uneducated grease monkey are over. Aspiring auto mechanics must have increasingly sophisticated vocational skills and must constantly adapt to continually changing technology. The integration of computers in automobiles means mechanics must be familiar with complicated new systems. While this emphasis on ongoing training intimidates some, most soon find that motivation and an enthusiastic instructor can help. Students begin their training by studying car processes in manuals and then work on older cars. Most mechanics find themselves in technical educational programs after graduating high school, but a few high schools offer four-year automotive programs that culminate in certification. All auto mechanics are required to be certified (not by law, but by employers--few will hire uncertified personnel). To obtain certification, students spend over 1,000 hours working on cars and must pass a written exam. There are test preparation guides for all certifying exams. Community college programs encourage students to complete an applied science degree and then acquire an automotive technology certificate. A number of training programs work with local shops to place students in internships with car dealerships or service centers during their studies. Most mechanics are responsible for obtaining their own sets of tools, but employers are responsible for supplying large power tools and electronic testing equipment. Some shops require union membership.

Present and Future

Automobiles were first produced in the 1890s, when they were little more than novelties for the very rich. As cars entered mass production and the manufacturing process grew more complex, owners came to rely increasingly on specialized auto mechanics. By the 1980s the computer had become an integral part of automotive design and troubleshooting. Just five years ago, fewer than 20 percent of the parts of a car were computerized, whereas now over 80 percent are, a situation that has forced mechanics to update their skills. One community college instructor said that every one of his students who completes his program gets a job. Currently, there is a shortage of approximately 60,000 auto mechanics. The field is anticipated to grow since the trends are for people to keep their cars longer and replace them with increasingly complex models. The profession is relatively immune to fluctuations in the economy as a car is a necessity, not a luxury, for many people.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

Mechanics generally enter the field after a lifetime fascination with cars, so it is rare that they jump ship to another profession in the first two years. Many enjoy the challenge of making cars safer and more useful. This coupled with the fact that auto mechanics have extremely low levels of unemployment leads to high levels of satisfaction for the novice. The money is good, but hours can be long.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Mechanics are earning their reputations and exposing themselves to a variety of automotive problems. Many of them have gained enough experience to become specialists. Those who are dissatisfied with the long hours go into non-automotive repair jobs. Well-trained technicians are more efficient even using fewer expensive gadgets than their untrained counterparts--so proper and continuous training is an imperative.

TEN YEARS OUT

Experienced and ambitious mechanics often open their own shops eventually and hire other mechanics. Those working for big dealerships and shops should by now have risen to supervisory positions. Others who have not updated their skills may be forced into lesser-paying jobs. The majority remain automotive mechanics for the rest of their careers.