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The New Auto Mechanic: Computer Savvy Problem Solver
Author: Kay Easton

How have auto mechanics changed through the years? The profession has evolved with new technology into a different career.

Auto mechanics: The Past

From yesterday's "grease monkey" to today's automotive service technician, the world of auto mechanics has changed drastically since muscle cars like the 1965 Pontiac GTO or the 1968 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 ruled America's roadways. In the 50s and 60s, the car you drove made a statement about who you were: the Camaro guy or the Corvair guy. If you wanted to socialize with friends, you needed a car and a driver's license. Entire subcultures revolved around your car.

Many became auto mechanics because of their love of cars. Keeping their car purring or roaring, depending on the car and the subculture, was almost a rite of passage. It was a simpler time: car engines and other systems were fairly straightforward. Most high schools offered auto shop, and if you knew the basics of the combustion engine, you could become an auto mechanic with little or no formal education beyond high school. You learned on the job from older, established mechanics.

Working conditions for early auto mechanics were not regulated. Most garages weren't vented properly and early mechanics were at risk from carbon monoxide, Freon, solvent, and paint fumes. Improper disposal of batteries, antifreeze, and other hazardous items also presented serious health and safety problems.

Auto mechanics/technicians: The Present

The work environment for automotive technicians has changed significantly because of tighter health and safety regulations. Work areas are required by law to be properly ventilated and well-lit, although the nature of car repair doesn't eliminate working with greasy parts and tools, or lifting heavy objects.

Over the last 50 years, as the romance of car culture waned, the auto mechanic profession, with its blue collar roots, has taken a back seat to white collar workers with more education and higher salaries. However, as automobiles have become more complex, today's automotive technicians have to know so much more than their predecessors. In addition to mechanical and technical savvy, today's auto technicians must be customer service oriented and able to master computer software programs for diagnostics, data retrieval, record keeping, and vehicle management. Perhaps the least tangible but most important skill of all, however, is still that uncanny knack for troubleshooting that has been the magic of top auto mechanics since the first car rolled off the assembly line.

Automotive Technician: Education and Certification

More and more employers are looking for auto techs with formal education. The Department of Labor reports that, in the 25 to 44 age group for automotive service technicians/mechanics, installers and repairers, 27.4 percent have a high school diploma, 20.9 percent have education beyond high school, and 19.5 percent have a bachelor's degree.

Auto shop is a thing of the past in many high schools due to the high cost of the electronic equipment now used throughout the industry. However, educational programs are offered at trade schools, technical institutes, community colleges, four-year colleges, or through apprenticeship programs. Some automotive manufacturers also offer factory-sponsored programs for their particular vehicles.

Almost all employers also require auto technicians to be certified by having two years of hands-on, relevant experience and passing a certification exam. The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence offers more than 40 exams in a certification test series that includes:

  1. Automobile
  2. Collision repair
  3. Medium-heavy truck
  4. School bus
  5. Transit bus
  6. Truck equipment

Each series has specific modules: the automobile series, for example, includes automatic transmission/transaxle, brakes, electrical/electronic systems, engine performance, engine repair, heating and air conditioning, manual drive train and axles, suspension and steering and light vehicle diesel engines.

Automotive technicians: The Future

Many employers report they are having trouble finding qualified auto technicians to fill open positions, many created by older auto mechanics who are retiring, according to a USAToday article. To meet this projected shortage, auto makers and educators are "working to drum up enthusiasm for careers in auto repair." The industry is looking for well-educated technicians who have excellent problem solving skills and proficiency with technology. And keep in mind that auto technician jobs won't be outsourced anytime soon.