Rev up for an automotive career
November 21, 2004
If you have a passion for cars and computers and you're open to hard work and challenges, then the automotive industry is looking for you.
According to the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), auto technicians and mechanics held about 818,000 jobs in 2002. The majority worked for automotive repair and maintenance shops, automobile dealers and retailers as well as wholesalers of automotive parts, accessories and supplies. Employment in this field is expected to increase by 10 to 20 percent, or about as fast as the average, for all occupations through 2012, reported the BLS.
In New Jersey, there's a need for as many as 1,000 to 1,200 new technicians a year with that demand reaching 35,000 a year nationwide, said Jim Appleton, president of the New Jersey Coalition of Automobile Retailers.
"There's a huge demand throughout Bergen and Passaic counties for automotive technicians," said Appleton.
To meet this demand, companies today are now more interested in cultivating their own talent rather than lure employees away from competitors Appleton said.
"It used to be that dealerships would steal professional mechanics away from one another but today there's a lot more emphasis on growing their own," Appleton said.
Entry-level technicians or mechanics with the best shot at landing the top-paying jobs are those with formal education at an accredited secondary or technical high school or institute according to the labor bureau.
A new approach today, Appleton said, is for retailers to link with facilities offering diplomas in automotive technology. A national program called Automotive Youth Education Services (AYES) is a partnership among participating automotive manufacturers and dealers, and selected high schools and vocational institutions. The goal of the program is to encourage bright students with a good mechanical aptitude to pursue careers in the ever-changing field of automotive technology. Students from Bergen County Technical High School in Hackensack and Passaic County Technical Institute in Wayne participate in the AYES Program partnering with several North Jersey dealers.
These employers provide internships or apprenticeships for automotive students.
"This is very much a high-tech career and the kids going into it are the kids who are also drawn into the computer technology fields," Appleton said. "Literally the car is the most-complicated computer you can work on."
John Viola, parts and service director for Prestige Dealers in Mahwah, said he draws almost exclusively from a pool of Lincoln Technical Institute graduates to fill entry-level technician positions. Students at the Mahwah campus have a choice of three different courses of study to earn a diploma in auto technology.
"It's very important to me that entry-level technicians have this formal training," Viola said. "It tells me that they have been able to get through the basics, that they have a good attendance record, and I can judge their performance level by their GPAs."
That's typical of most of the dealerships in the area according to Nella Santangelo, director of career services at Lincoln Technical Institute.
"A lot of dealers - Mercedes, Jaguar, BMW, Volkswagen - want to hire our students. There's definitely a shortage of trained technicians. I can't keep up with the job orders," Santangelo said.
There's a wide variety of career choices open to candidates with the appropriate technological training. These include automotive paint preparation technicians, structural and non-structural repair technicians and repair estimators, as well as technicians specializing in brake servicing, steering and suspension, electric and electronics, engine performance and general maintenance. Not everyone who graduates from the automotive technology programs pursues a career as a technician. Some go into car sales positions while others work in the parts department or are employed as service providers or service writers.
"In the old days, mechanics would talk to the customers, but today's techs don't have time for that and techs are not always the best at interacting with people," Appleton said.
That's where service providers or writers step in. These jobs require good customer relations skills and a knowledge of the cars being serviced.
"If someone comes in for a 40,000 mile service and says, 'By the way, there's a rattle in the left side of the car,' the service writer needs to know enough to ask more questions and be able to give the techs the information they need to do their jobs," Appleton said.
At the Prestige dealership, this is the job of the service coordinator. Twenty applicants applied for the position the last time it was offered. Viola said he chose a graduate of Lincoln Technical Institute. A knowledge of cars is important he said when coordinating appointments and knowing about how long it will take a tech to do a particular job. It took the previous coordinator eight months to learn on the job what the Lincoln graduate knew walking in the door, Viola said.
"Some dealers don't think there's a need for this position but to me it's very important. I don't want to run out of work for my techs," he added.
A year and a half ago, Lincoln Technical Institute student Stephen Pilcer was hired by Prestige Mini in Mahwah to prepare new cars for delivery. He works at the dealership from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. while pursuing his technical education at the institute's evening program until 10 p.m.
"We were a little concerned about hiring him because he was going to night school and we thought that might be too much for him," Viola said. "But he has been very motivated, a great employee."
Motivation is extremely important in today's technicians said the service director.
"In today's field, it's very, very tough to get dedicated technicians that want to move forward with the product," Viola said.
Pilcer was recently rewarded for his enthusiasm by being promoted to second senior technician and now has a good working knowledge of all of the cars in the dealership.
"There was only me and the shop foreman when I started here," said Pilcer, 33, who will graduate from Lincoln on Dec. 7. "I had to be able to learn quickly and, quite honestly, it was either sink or swim."
While the job can be frustrating at times - due to the often complicated computer systems in today's cars - Pilcer said he is happy with his career choice.
"It's very rewarding and has allowed me to do a lot of things I wanted to accomplish - I just bought a house," he said.
More and more, the auto technician field is attracting career changers like Pilcer who used to work as a salesperson in the retail industry.
"It's not just the young 19- year-old kid out of school who is applying for these positions," Viola said. "We're interviewing people in their late-20s and early-30s. That's great for me because it means I'm getting a more mature person who's at the point where they know what they want to do with their lives."
The profession of automotive technician or mechanic is a very different job than what it was 20 years ago Appleton said.
"There's a lot less brawn and grease that gets under the fingernails now and a lot more emphasis on computer and high-tech skills," he said. "Instead of trouble shooting under the hood, there's a lot more diagnostics done using specialized computers."
Appleton said he suspects that might be one reason more women are now drawn to the technical end of the automotive profession.
"One of our female graduates is a technician at Prestige Lexis and is doing very well for herself," Santangelo said. "If you want it bad enough you will succeed in this profession."