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Automotive mechanics, often called automotive service technicians, repair and service automobiles and occasionally light trucks, such as vans and pickups, with gasoline engines. (Mechanics who work on diesel-powered trucks, buses, and equipment are discussed in the Handbook statement on diesel mechanics. Motorcycle mechanics who repair and service motorcycles, motorscooters, mopeds, and occasionally small all-terrain vehiclesare discussed in the Handbook statement on motorcycle, boat, and small-engine mechanics.)
Anyone whose car or light truck has broken down knows the importance of the mechanic's job. The ability to diagnose the source of the problem quickly and accurately, one of the mechanic's most valuable skills, requires good reasoning ability and a thorough knowledge of automobiles. In fact, many mechanics consider diagnosing "hard to find" troubles one of their most challenging and satisfying duties.
When mechanical or electrical troubles occur, mechanics first get a description of the symptoms from the owner or, if they work in a dealership or large shop, the repair service estimator who wrote the repair order. The mechanic may have to test drive the vehicle or use a variety of testing equipment, such as engine analyzers, spark plug testers, or compression gauges to locate the problem. Once the cause of the problem is found, mechanics make adjustments or repairs. If a part is damaged or worn beyond repair, or cannot be fixed at a reasonable cost, it is replaced, usually after consultation with the vehicle owner.
During routine service, mechanics inspect, lubricate, and adjust engines and other components, repairing or replacing parts before they cause breakdowns. They usually follow a checklist to be sure they examine all important parts, such as belts, hoses, steering systems, spark plugs, brake and fuel systems, wheel bearings, and other potentially troublesome items.
Mechanics use a variety of tools in their work. They use power tools such as pneumatic wrenches to remove bolts quickly; machine tools such as lathes and grinding machines to rebuild brakes and other parts; welding and flame-cutting equipment to remove and repair exhaust systems and other parts; jacks and hoists to lift cars and engines; and a growing variety of electronic service equipment, such as infrared engine analyzers and computerized diagnostic devices. They also use many common handtools such as screwdrivers, pliers, and wrenches to work on small parts and get at hard-to-reach places.
Automotive mechanics in larger shops have increasingly become specialized. For example, automatic transmission mechanics work on gear trains, couplings, hydraulic pumps, and other parts of automatic transmissions. Because these are complex mechanisms and include electronic parts, their repair requires considerable experience and training, including a knowledge of hydraulics. Tune-up mechanics adjust the ignition timing and valves, and adjust or replace spark plugs and other parts to ensure efficient engine performance. They often use electronic test equipment to help them adjust and locate malfunctions in fuel, ignition, and emissions control systems.
Automotive air-conditioning mechanics install and repair air-conditioners and service components such as compressors and condensers. Front-end mechanics align and balance wheels and repair steering mechanisms and suspension systems. They frequently use special alignment equipment and wheel-balancing machines. Brake repairers adjust brakes, replace brake linings and pads, repair hydraulic cylinders, turn discs and drums, and make other repairs on brake systems. Some mechanics specialize in both brake and front-end work.
Automotive-radiator mechanics clean radiators with caustic solutions, locate and solder leaks, and install new radiator cores or complete replacement radiators. They also may repair heaters and air-conditioners, and solder leaks in gasoline tanks.
Most automotive mechanics work a standard 40-hour week, but some self-employed mechanics work longer hours. Generally, mechanics work indoors. Most repair shops are well ventilated and lighted, but some are drafty and noisy. Mechanics frequently work with dirty and greasy parts, and in awkward positions. They often must lift heavy parts and tools. Minor cuts, burns, and bruises are common, but serious accidents are avoided when the shop is kept clean and orderly and safety practices are observed.
Automotive mechanics held about 736,000 jobs in 1994. The majority worked for retail and wholesale automotive dealers, independent automotive repair shops, and gasoline service stations. Others were employed at automotive service facilities at department, automotive, and home supply stores, or maintained the automobile fleets of taxicab and automobile leasing companies, Federal, State, and local governments, and other organizations. Motor vehicle manufacturers employed some mechanics to test, adjust, and repair cars at the end of assembly lines. Over 20 percent of automotive mechanics were self-employed.
Automotive technology is rapidly increasing in sophistication, and most training authorities strongly recommend that persons seeking trainee automotive mechanic jobs complete a formal training program after graduating from high school. However, some automotive mechanics still learn the trade solely by assisting and working with experienced mechanics.
Automotive mechanic training programs are offered in high schools, community colleges, and public and private vocational and technical schools, but postsecondary programs generally provide more thorough career preparation than high school programs. High school programs, while an asset, vary greatly in quality. Some offer only an introduction to automotive technology and service for the future consumer or hobbyist, while others aim to equip graduates with enough skills to get a job as a mechanic's helper or trainee mechanic after graduation.
Postsecondary automotive mechanic training programs vary greatly in format, but generally provide intensive career preparation through a combination of classroom instruction and hands-on practice. Some trade and technical school programs provide concentrated training for 6 months to a year, depending on how many hours the student must attend each week. Community college programs normally spread the training out over 2 years, supplement the automotive training with instruction in English, basic mathematics, computers, and other subjects, and award an associate degree.
The various automobile manufacturers and their participating dealers sponsor 2-year associate degree programs at more than 100 community colleges across the Nation. The manufacturers provide service equipment and late model cars on which students practice new skills, and insure that the programs teach the latest automotive technology. Curriculums are updated frequently to reflect changing technology and equipment. Students in these programs typically spend alternate 6- to 12-week periods attending classes full time and working full time in the service departments of sponsoring dealers. Because students spend time gaining valuable work experience, these programs may take as long as 4 years to complete, instead of the normal 2 years required to earn an associate degree in automotive service technology. However, they offer students the opportunity to earn money while going to school and promise a job upon graduation. Also, some sponsoring dealers provide students with financial assistance for tuition or the purchase of tools.
The National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation (NATEF), an affiliate of the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE), certifies automobile mechanic training programs offered by high schools and postsecondary trade schools, technical institutes, and community colleges. While NATEF certification is voluntary, and many institutions have not sought it, certification does signify that the program meets uniform standards for instructional facilities, equipment, staff credentials, and curriculum. In early 1995, over 850 high school and postsecondary automotive mechanic training programs had been certified by NATEF.
Knowledge of electronics is increasingly desirable for automotive mechanics because electronics is being used in a growing variety of automotive components. Engine controls and dashboard instruments were among the first components to use electronics, but now electronics are being used in brakes, transmissions, steering systems, and a variety of other components. In the past, problems involving electrical systems or electronics were usually handled by a specialist, but electronics are becoming so commonplace that most automotive mechanics must be familiar with at least the basic principles of electronics in order to recognize when an electronic malfunction may be responsible for a problem. In addition, automotive mechanics frequently must be able to test and replace electronic components.
For trainee mechanic jobs, employers look for people with good reading and basic mathematics and computer skills who can study technical manuals to keep abreast of new technology. People who have a desire to learn new service and repair procedures and specifications are excellent candidates for trainee mechanic jobs. Trainees also must possess mechanical aptitude and knowledge of how automobiles work. Most employers regard the successful completion of a vocational training program in automotive mechanics at a postsecondary institution as the best preparation for trainee positions. Experience working on motor vehicles in the Armed Forces or as a hobby is also valuable. Completion of high school is required by a growing number of employers. Courses in automotive repair, electronics, physics, chemistry, English, computers, and mathematics can provide a good basic educational background for a career as an automotive mechanic.
Beginners usually start as trainee mechanics, helpers, lubrication workers, or gasoline service station attendants and gradually acquire and practice their skills by working with experienced mechanics. Although a beginner can perform many routine service tasks and make simple repairs after a few months' experience, it usually takes 1 to 2 years of experience to acquire adequate proficiency to become a journey service mechanic and quickly perform the more difficult types of routine service and repairs. However, graduates of the better postsecondary mechanic training programs are often able to earn promotion to the journey level after only a few months on the job. An additional 1 to 2 years are usually required to become thoroughly experienced and familiar with all types of repairs. Difficult specialties, such as transmission repair, require another year or two of training and experience. In contrast, automotive radiator mechanics and brake specialists, who do not need an all-round knowledge of automotive repair, may learn their jobs in considerably less time.
In the past, many persons have become automotive mechanics through 3- or 4-year formal apprenticeship programs. However, as formal automotive training programs have increased in popularity, the number of employers willing to make such a long-term apprenticeship commitment has greatly declined.
Mechanics usually buy their handtools, and beginners are expected to accumulate tools as they gain experience. Many experienced mechanics have thousands of dollars invested in tools. Employers furnish power tools, engine analyzers, and other test equipment.
Employers increasingly send experienced automotive mechanics to manufacturer training centers to learn to repair new models or to receive special training in the repair of components such as electronic fuel injection or air-conditioners. Motor vehicle dealers may also send promising beginners to manufacturer sponsored mechanic training programs. Factory representatives come to many shops to conduct short training sessions.
Voluntary certification by ASE is widely recognized as a standard of achievement for automotive mechanics. Mechanics are certified in one or more of eight different service areas, such as electrical systems, engine repair, brake systems, suspension and steering, and heating and air conditioning. Master automotive mechanics are certified in all eight areas. For certification in each area, mechanics must have at least 2 years of experience and pass a written examination; completion of an automotive mechanic program in high school, vocational or trade school, or community or junior college may be substituted for 1 year of experience. Certified mechanics must retake the examination at least every 5 years.
Experienced mechanics who have leadership ability may advance to shop supervisor or service manager. Mechanics who work well with customers may become automotive repair service estimators. Some with sufficient funds open independent repair shops.
Job opportunities in this occupation are expected to be good for persons who complete automotive training programs in high school, vocational and technical schools, or community colleges. Persons whose training includes basic electronics skills should have the best opportunities. Persons without formal mechanic training are likely to face competition for entry level jobs. Mechanic careers are attractive to many because extensive training is not required and they afford the opportunity for good pay and the satisfaction of skilled work with one's hands.
Employment of automotive mechanics is expected to increase about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2005. Growth in mechanic employment in automobile dealerships, independent automotive repair shops, specialty car care chains, and other establishments will be offset somewhat by declining employment in gasoline service stations, because fewer stations offer repair services.
Nevertheless, the number of mechanics is expected to increase because expansion of the driving age population will increase the number of motor vehicles on the road. The growing complexity of automotive technology, such as the use of electronic and emissions control equipment, increasingly necessitates that cars be serviced by skilled workers, contributing to growth in demand for highly trained mechanics. In addition, if the average age of automobiles in operation continues to be high, a significant proportion of consumers' vehicle operating expenditures will be spent on service and repairs, and less on purchasing vehicles. However, improvements in the reliability of automobiles, together with less frequent requirements for routine service, are expected to result in continued declines in the service and repair needs of cars.
More job openings are expected for automotive mechanics than for most other occupations because replacement needs, the main source of job openings, will be substantial, due in large part to the size of the occupation. Replacements will be needed as experienced workers transfer to other occupations or retire or stop working for other reasons.
Most persons who enter the occupation may expect steady work because changes in economic conditions have little effect on the automotive repair business. During a downturn, however, some employers may be more reluctant to hire inexperienced workers.
Median weekly earnings of automotive mechanics who were wage and salary workers were $439 in 1994. The middle 50 percent earned between $308 and $624 a week. The lowest paid 10 percent earned less than $228 a week, and the top 10 percent earned more than $792 a week.
Many experienced mechanics employed by automotive dealers and independent repair shops receive a commission related to the labor cost charged to the customer. Under this method, weekly earnings depend on the amount of work completed by the mechanic. Employers frequently guarantee commissioned mechanics a minimum weekly salary.
Some mechanics are members of labor unions. The unions include the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers; the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America; the Sheet Metal Workers' International Association; and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Other workers who repair and service motor vehicles include diesel truck and bus mechanics, motorcycle mechanics, and automotive body repairers, painters, customizers, and repair service estimators.
For more details about work opportunities, contact local automotive dealers and repair shops, or the local office of the State employment service. The State employment service also may have information about training programs.
A list of certified automotive mechanic training programs may be obtained from:
National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation, 13505 Dulles Technology Dr., Herndon, VA 22071-3415.
Information on automobile manufacturer sponsored 2-year associate degree programs in automotive service technology may be obtained from:
ASSET Program, Training Department, Ford Parts and Service Division, Ford Motor Company, Room 109, 3000 Schaefer Rd., Dearborn, MI 48121.
Chrysler Dealer Apprenticeship Program, National C.A.P. Coordinator, CIMS 423-21-06, 26001 Lawrence Ave., Center Line, MI 48015, or by calling 1-800-626-1523.
General Motors Automotive Service Educational Program, National College Coordinator, General Motors Service Technology Group, 30501 Van Dyke Ave., Warren, MI 48090, or by calling 1-800-828-6860.
Information on how to become a certified automotive mechanic is available from:
ASE, 13505 Dulles Technology Dr., Herndon, VA 22071-3415.
For general information about the work of automotive mechanics, write to:
Automotive Service Association, Inc., 1901 Airport Freeway, Bedford, TX 76021-5732.
Automotive Service Industry Association, 25 Northwest Point, Elk Grove Village, IL 60007-1035.
For a directory of accredited private trade and technical schools that offer programs in automotive technician training, write to:
Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology, 2101 Wilson Blvd., Suite 302, Arlington, VA 22201.
For a list of public automotive mechanic training programs, contact:
Vocational Industrial Clubs of America, P.O. Box 3000, 1401 James Monroe Highway, Leesburg, VA 22075.
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