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Paving the Way for Success in Automotive Trades

Most people who enter the automotive trades have grown up working on cars as a hobby. This can be a big advantage to beginners.

"Students [who] have had opportunities to work with mechanical systems on a farm, in a high school workshop or around the home are often most prepared for entering the automotive trade," says Eric Fry. He's an instructor for an automotive service technician program at an institute of technology.

"High school workshops are vital to developing the hands-on ability for most trade sectors. Yet, sadly, due to their expense and liability, there seems to be less and less shop programs available."

Being mechanically inclined isn't the only skill today's auto mechanics and technicians need.

"As cars have evolved technologically, we do less nuts and bolts related work and a significantly larger amount of electronics and computer work," says Bill Moss. He's the owner of EuroService Automotive, a European auto repair facility in Warrenton, Virginia. He's also the director of the Mechanical Operations Committee for the Automotive Service Association.

"We are equally likely to approach a car with a laptop or scanning device as we are to approach a car with the wrench at this point in our technology," he says.

This means people entering the field need to understand computers and technology. Abstract reasoning and problem solving skills are also important to help mechanics figure out why a vehicle isn't working properly. Communication skills are also important for interacting with customers and co-workers. At the same time, reading, writing and comprehension skills are needed to stay current on industry trends.

Brittany Weschenfelder is the recipient of the UTI Foundation Brienne Davis Scholarship. (The scholarship is named after the late female NASCAR official.) As a young woman studying mechanics, Weschenfelder is one of a growing number of women entering the automotive trade. She currently attends the automotive program at the Universal Technical Institute in Houston.

"When I first started [five months ago] I only knew of about three other women in the [evening] classes," Weschenfelder says. "But now I see more females as I walk through the hallways." This session, she is one of three women in one of her classes.

At age 17 Weschenfelder inherited a 1984 Dodge Rampage from her grandfather. By the time she got it, it wasn't running, so she rebuilt the carburetor and spent the next 18 months taking it apart and getting it running. That experience made her realize she wanted a career working with cars.

"Most of it is electrical work now. Of course, things can go wrong with the engine itself, but usually when something goes wrong it's within the wiring or the computers," she says.

Electrical classes have been incredibly valuable to Weschenfelder. An Under Car class that taught her about suspension and alignment was equally helpful. "Every day we're covering a new topic -- information that boggles the mind. It's really cool. I also like the hands-on experience with all these different types of cars. Pretty much all the cars we work on here are newer than mine, which is nice."

Matt Andersen is a student in the Collision Repair and Refinish technician training program at the Universal Technical Institute in Sacramento, California. He was already working as a professional car painter before he decided to go back to school.

"The economy started to change things, so I decided to become more diversified in the collision industry," says Andersen. "I wanted to stay in the industry, but needed to go back to school to get deeper knowledge to open more doors for me."

Andersen's year-long program goes beyond surface repairs. "They give you a basic understanding of a vehicle from one end to the other, because when a vehicle is in a collision there are many different things impacted," he says. "You have to have a core knowledge so you can approach a vehicle with the knowledge of what to do, where to start and how to resolve the problem."

Other subjects covered in the program include air conditioning, electrical systems, paint blending, safety and general mechanics. In addition to the certificate he'll receive upon graduation, Andersen says he's already earned over 16 separate certifications. Each one will help with future job opportunities.

"You can actually be paid more based on how many credentials you have," Andersen says. He and Weschenfelder are both taking special courses specializing in brands like Ford and Mercedes Benz.

While Weschenfelder and Andersen are attending technical school, Moss says community colleges also offer good automotive programs with reasonable prices and flexible schedules.

"Any time education involves an expense, I would recommend using that education in conjunction with on-the-job training. [This] not only maximizes the education, but also makes sure the aptitude and passion for the industry match the expense of the education," Moss says.

Moss also cautions students to be wary of schools or programs that promise great-paying jobs upon graduation. "Often they'll assure you that you'll start your career at the top, when, in fact, you will enter the job market at the entry level. You may be well educated, but lack the real world 'environmental' education that makes for a valuable employee."

Fry says employers want motivated employees with good attitudes and who work well with others. These are things even high school students can develop when given the right opportunities.

Because technology is constantly changing, Fry says it's vital for students to know the core concepts of technology. That way, they'll be able to figure out technological changes and advances.

"It's important [for students] to adopt an inquisitive attitude, to look for opportunities to expand their understanding, to be motivated to look deeper at the technology in order to identify the core concepts that apply to multiple systems throughout the vehicle," Fry says.

"This means focusing on the physics behind the machine to understand electrical, mechanical and hydraulic systems. High schools that can connect a student's interest in cars with the fundamentals of physics are building a solid foundation. [A student can then] construct a transferable understanding of automotive theory that is vital [when] facing problems with a rapidly advancing technology."

The good news for anyone considering a career in the automotive trade is that even in a recession, work is stable. That's because people hang onto their cars longer during an economic downturn, and older cars usually need more work than newer models.

"Income potential in the automotive field, whether it's collision repair or mechanical repair, is very good," Moss says. "In many cases, technicians grow and mature and become business owners. The best technicians and shop foremen enjoy six figure incomes with benefits."

Fry agrees that there's great earning potential for educated technicians. "Automotive technicians must continually upgrade to maintain pace with technology," he says.

An automotive technician with up-to-date certifications can earn much more than an uncertified colleague, according to Fry.

"In the future, people will keep their cars longer, and integration of apps will allow technologies to be updated while still keeping the same car," Fry says. That's why he says there will always be a need for good technicians.

"The greatest challenge is getting started," he adds. "Qualified, experienced technicians are unlikely to ever have trouble finding employment."

Before graduation, Andersen had a job offer from a collision center specializing in high-end brands like Bentley, Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini. The school set up the interview and Andersen's experience sealed the deal.

"I would never in 100 years have applied there if it hadn't been for the school putting us together," he says.


Automotive Service Association
Website covering topics of interest to North American automotive technicians

A training organization with information on technician training and collision repair

Auto Mechanic Schools
Online directory listing automotive technical schools and programs (by specialty or state)

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