How to Become a Mechanic
What is a Mechanic?
An auto mechanic’s main job duties are to inspect, maintain and repair all types of vehicles – it’s very much a choose-your-own-adventure type of career. Specific job duties will depend on your natural preferences as well as the training you choose.
As a trained mechanic, your career can go down many different roads.
If your goal is to perform general maintenance and repairs on cars, you can look into general training. You can also be trained to work on a specific type of vehicle or brand, which would translate into a career working on that type of car, for that brand or at a dealership.
Another option is to train to work on specific vehicle parts. For example, you can become a mechanic who specializes in brakes, air conditioning or transmissions. Choosing this type of specialization would most likely lead to working in repair shops.
Your job duties can also take you beyond just working on cars. When you choose to be an auto mechanic, there are a variety of vehicles you could work on, from your average car to large construction vehicles.
Your job duties remain (mostly) the same across vehicles. You would be expected to examine, troubleshoot, restore and maintain various types of automobiles, including personal vehicles, trucks and heavy equipment machinery.
In order to be successful in your job, you’ve got to know about the variety of tools and equipment used in the field, as well as the procedures for troubleshooting and repairing vehicles.
Wherever your career ends up taking you, you’ll be expected to have a strong knowledge of automotive parts, as well as how those parts work together. It’s also important to know how to use diagnostic software and tools to figure out what might be wrong, especially with engines that rely heavily on computers.
As an auto mechanic, your work can lead to a variety of places, including government agencies, repair shops, gas stations, and automotive parts, accessories and tire stores. However, the majority of auto mechanics end up working for automobile dealers or in the automotive repair and maintenance industry.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for automotive service technicians and mechanics was $39,550 in May 2017. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $21,470, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $64,070.
What you can expect to bring home depends on the career path you take. According to the same stats, the median annual wage working for automobile dealers was $43,180; for automotive mechanical and electrical repair and maintenance, it was $37,420; and for automotive parts, accessories, and tire store employees, it was $33,640.
The rate you get paid depends on where you work. Many repair shops pay auto technicians on an hourly basis.
If you get enough experience as an auto technician and work for a car dealer or an independent repair shop, you can receive a commission that’s based on the cost of labor charged to a customer.
Under this system, which is commonly referred to as the “flat rate” or “flag rate,” your weekly earnings will depend on the amount of the work you complete.
If you do become a mechanic, you can expect to work full-time and possibly even evenings or weekends. Overtime is common in this profession.
Becoming an auto mechanic comes with quite a few perks. The first, if you’re a car fanatic, is the opportunity to turn your passion into a career.
Beyond that, one of the major perks of becoming an auto mechanic is the job stability.
The field of auto repair is very stable, as cars have long been the main form of transportation for both people and companies, and that probably won’t be changing anytime soon.
And the need for professionals who can repair automobiles remains relatively constant. The BLS estimates that employment of automotive service technicians and mechanics is projected to grow 6 percent from now to 2026, about as fast as the average for all occupations.
Another benefit in becoming an auto mechanic is that you’ll have the chance to one day open your own shop, and that can be quite lucrative. Auto shop owners in the U.S. make average salaries of more than $100,000 a year, according to job site Indeed.
If you work at a private shop, some “off the record” perks might include the ability to use the facilities to work on your own vehicle. You may also receive car parts or have access to machinery at a lower cost or even for free.
The good news: If you’re a qualified applicant with the right education and experience, job opportunities should be in your favor.
According to the BLS, employment of automotive service technicians and mechanics is projected to grow 6 percent from now to 2026, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations.
And the number of vehicles on the road is expected to continue to rise. Now more than ever, entry-level service technicians will be in great demand to perform basic maintenance and repair, such as replacing brake pads and changing oil, on these vehicles.
The bad news: New auto tech like electric vehicles may put a cap on future demand for auto service techs and mechanics because these vehicles will be more reliable and require less frequent maintenance and repair.
The first qualification you’ll need to become an auto mechanic is a high school degree or its equivalent. Next, you’ll want to do everything you can to make yourself a desirable candidate and a good hire.
The right training will make you stand out to employers. Many prefer to hire someone who has completed a training program at a vocational school or postsecondary learning institution. Completing this type of program shows an employer that, in most cases, you’ll require less on-the-job training.
If you don’t go the route of a trade school, you will most likely start out in a lower-paying position, like a trainee tech, technician helper, or as a lubrication worker.
The best way to make yourself marketable in this scenario is to gain as much knowledge and experience through hands-on work as possible. Remember: No experience is too small.
As your career begins and progresses, you’ll be required to get various certifications.
Certification from the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) is considered the standard credential for auto service technicians. Getting this certification demonstrates your competence in the field and usually comes with higher pay. Most employers require their service technicians to become certified.
You can get ASE certification in nine different automobile specialty areas: automatic transmission/transaxle, brakes, light vehicle diesel engines, electrical/electronic systems, engine performance, engine repair, heating and air-conditioning, manual drivetrain and axles, and suspension and steering.
To become certified, you must have at least 2 years of experience (or relevant schooling and 1 year of experience) and pass an exam.
If you achieve certification in all of the required areas, you can even earn the elite ASE Master Technician status, which comes with higher pay.
Getting into the Field
Once you’ve made the decision that this is what you want to do, here are some steps for breaking into the auto mechanic industry:
Get in on the ground floor at an auto repair shop
You can start your career by finding a job at a local mechanic’s shop. If you’re looking to get in on the ground floor, find a job at your local mechanic’s shop as a parts runner (you’ll set aside parts for customers) or mechanic’s helper.
You probably won’t work on cars all day, but you will get a hands-on education on how an auto repair shop works to prep you for your future career. And as you gain more experience and the trust of your supervisor, you might even get the chance to get under the hood of a car.
You will also be building valuable relationships in the industry. Once you become a full-fledged auto mechanic, you’ll have a relevant reference to put on your job application or even a job offer from the shop.
Start building up your toolbox
Now is the time to start building up the tools of your trade. The auto repair shop you work for will most likely have the large, more expensive equipment for mechanics to use. However, you’ll probably be responsible for purchasing the hand tools you’ll need.
Some of the basic tools you may need to buy include:
- A set of wrenches (SAE & Metric)
- A set of ratchet and sockets (SAE & Metric)
- A hammer
- A multimeter
- A hex wrench set
- An LED headlamp
Find out what you need by talking to other mechanics working in your repair shop — they’ll be able to give recommendations on the right tools and their favorite brands. At the end of the day, though, you’ll have to get what’s right for you and start building your own preferences.
Get the right education and training
You can find mechanic certification programs at most community colleges and technical schools, or you can find a school that specializes in mechanic education.
There are pros and cons for each scenario. A community college certification will set you up with the education you need to be a successful mechanic, plus it’s typically the more affordable option. However, a specialized mechanic school may pay off more in the long run in your career.
An added benefit of attending a specialized school is the networking opportunities they offer, as well as the specialized certification. The more specialized your certification, the more you can expect to earn in your hourly rate.
Gain as much experience as possible
Becoming a certified auto mechanic is only just the beginning. Your education should be a lifelong pursuit.
There’s always more to learn, even if you attended a technical school and completed a basic mechanic certification program. If you have the time and financing, you can move on to advanced or specialized certification for a mechanic school. Some employers will even fund your education.
Already have a job at an auto repair shop? It’s worth asking your employer if they’d be interested in paying for your advanced certification or even a fraction of it.
The benefit of continued learning and advanced certifications is that you’ll be a more ideal candidate for employers.
Types of Certification
The standard certification for mechanics is through the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence. It’s available in nine different areas: automatic transmission/transaxle, brakes, light vehicle diesel engines, electrical/electronic systems, engine performance, engine repair, heating and air-conditioning, manual drivetrain and axles, and suspension and steering.
The cost will depend on the education and training you choose. Here’s an idea of what you can expect if you opt for:
- Online automotive technician training programs — Programs can cost anywhere from $750 to $1,000.
- A certificate program — You can expect to pay $5,000 to $20,000 for programs that last six months to two years.
- An associate degree — A degree program in auto mechanics generally costs about $10,000-$25,000 and takes two years to complete.
- Voluntary certifications — Courses generally cost $30-$60 per test, plus a $36 registration fee.
- Licensing requirements — Licensing requirements vary by state.
It depends on the training you choose, but at the end of a successful program, you should be able to do the following:
- Diagnose and repair all major vehicle systems, including electrical, brakes, engines, transmissions, and steering and suspension
- Use tools and equipment found in an automotive repair shop
- Operate diagnostic and repair equipment
- Interpret repair manuals and computer-based programs
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