Nature of the Work
Automotive mechanics, often called service technicians, repair and service automobiles and occasionally small trucks, such as vans and pickups, with gasoline engines. Motorcycle mechanics repair and service motorcycles, motorscooters, mopeds, and occasionally small all-terrain vehicles. Anyone whose car or motorcycle has broken down knows the importance of the mechanic's job. The ability to make a quick and accurate diagnosis, one of the mechanic's most valuable skills, requires good reasoning ability and a thorough knowledge of automobiles or motorcycles. 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, the repair service estimator who wrote the repair order. The mechanic may have to test drive the vehicle or use testing equipment, such as engine analyzers, spark plug testers, or compression gauges, to locate the problem. Once the cause of the problem if found, mechanics make adjustments or repairs. If a part is damaged or worn beyond repair, or cannot be fixed at a reasonable cost, they replace it, usually after consultation with the vehicle owner.
To prevent breakdowns, during routine service mechanics check parts and adjust, repair, or replace them before they go bad. 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 hand tools such as screwdrivers, pliers, and wrenches to work on small parts and get at hard-to-reach places. Automotive and motorcycle mechanics in larger shops increasingly specialize. For example, automatic transmission mechanics work on gear trains, couplings, hydraulic pumps, and other parts of automatic transmissions. Because these are complex mechanisms, 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 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 disks 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.
Generally, automotive and motorcycle 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 may be avoided when the shop is kept clean and orderly and safety practices are observed.
Automotive and motorcycle mechanics held about 716,000 jobs in 1990. The majority worked for 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 adjust and repair cars at the end of assembly lines. Over 20 percent of automotive mechanics were self employed.
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
Many automotive mechanics still learn the trade by assisting and working with experienced mechanics. However, automotive technology is rapidly increasing in sophistication, and most training authorities recommend that persons seeking trainee automotive mechanic jobs complete a formal training program. Programs in automotive mechanics are offered in high schools, community colleges, and public and private vocational and technical schools. High school programs particularly, vary greatly in quality. Postsecondary automotive mechanic training programs vary greatly in format. Some concentrate the instruction in only 6 months or a year, depending on how many hours the student must attend each week. Some community college programs spread the training out over 2 years, supplement the automotive training with instruction in academic subjects, and award an associate degree.
Knowledge of electronics is increasingly desirable for automotive and motorcycle mechanics. Electronics is being used in a growing variety of automotive and motorcycle 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 in order to recognize when an electronic malfunction may be responsible for a problem.
Most persons hired as trainee motorcycle mechanics are motorcycle enthusiasts who acquired some basic mechanics skills by servicing, repairing, and customizing their own motorcycles. Few formal training programs in motorcycles mechanics exist.
Beginners usually start as helpers, lubrication workers, or gasoline station attendants and gradually acquire skills by working with experienced mechanics. Although a beginner can make simple repairs after a few months' experience, it usually takes 1 to 2 years of experience to become a service mechanic and make the more difficult types of routine service and repairs. 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. 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 entered 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.
For trainee mechanic jobs, employers look for people with mechanical aptitude and a knowledge of automobiles and motorcycles. Experience working on motor vehicles in the Armed Forces or as a hobby is valuable. Completion of high school is also an advantage in obtaining an entry job. Courses in automotive repair, electronics, physics, chemistry, and mathematics can help a person better understand how an automobile or motorcycle operates.
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 and motorcycle mechanics to factory training centers to learn to repair new models or to receive special training in electronic fuel injection or air-conditioning repair. Motor vehicle dealers may also send promising beginners to factory-sponsored mechanic training programs. Factory representatives come to many shops to conduct short training sessions. Mechanics also must read service and repair manuals to keep abreast of new technology.
Voluntary certification by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence is widely recognized as a standard of achievement for automobile mechanics. Mechanics are certified in 1 or more of 8 different service areas, such as tune-ups, brake and front-end work, or electrical system repair. General 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 automotive mechanics are expected to be plentiful for persons who complete training programs in high school, vocational and technical schools, community colleges. Persons without formal mechanic training are likely to face competition for entry level jobs. Mechanics careers are attractive to many because 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 as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2000. Slow employment growth in gasoline service stations will offset growth in mechanic employment in automobile dealerships, independent automotive repair ships, and other industries.
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 increase, a growing proportion of vehicle operation costs will be spent on repairs, and less on the cost of the vehicle. However, improvements in the reliability of automobiles, together with less frequent requirements for routine service, are expected to dampen employment growth.
More job openings are expected for automotive and motorcycle mechanics than for most other occupations. Despite projected faster-than-average growth in employment, the main source of job openings will be the need to replace experienced workers who transfer to other occupations, retire, or stop working for other reasons. Replacement needs will be substantial, in large part, because of the size of the occupation.
Most persons who enter the occupation may expect steady work because changes in economic conditions have little effect on the automotive repair career. During a downturn, however, some employers may be more reluctant to hire inexperienced workers.
Highly skilled automotive mechanics employed by automobile dealers in 18 cities had average hourly earnings of $18.10 in 1990. Less skilled service mechanics who perform routine service and make minor repairs had average hourly earnings of $13.00, and lubricators averaged an estimated $9.05 an hour in 1990.
Many experienced mechanics employed by automotive and motorcycle 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, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America (Ind.).
Other workers who repair and service motor vehicles include automotive body repairers, customizers, repair service estimators, transportation equipment painters, and truck, bus, and diesel mechanics.
Sources of Additional Information
For more details about work opportunities, contact local automotive and motorcycle dealers and repair shops; locals of the unions previously mentioned; or the local office of the State employment service. The State employment service also may have information about training programs.
A directory of accredited private trade and technical schools with training programs for automotive and motorcycle mechanics is available from:
National Association of Trade and Technical Schools, 2251 Wisconsin Ave. NW., Washington, D.C. 20007.
Information on automotive and motorcycle mechanic training is available from: Motor and Equipment Manufacturers Association, Technical Training Council, 222 Cedar Lane, Teaneck, N.J. 07666.
For general information about the work of automotive mechanics, write to:
Automotive Service Industry Association, 444 North Michigan Ave., Chicago, ILL. 60611.
Automotive Service Councils, Inc., 188 Industrial Dr., Suite 112, Elmhurst, Ill. 60126. Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association of the U.S., Ind., 300 New Center Bldg., Detroit, Mich. 48202_
Information on how to become a certified automotive mechanic is available from:
National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, Suite 515, 1825 K St. NW., Washington, D.C. 20006.