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Gearheads Wanted: Opportunities for Those Willing to Learn

Working on a creeper

According to the US Department of Transportation, there are more than 225 million registered automobiles in the US, with roughly 840,000 auto technician/mechanic jobs in the US, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In other words, opportunities in this industry are vast. Wherever there are cars, there will be a need for those who can fix them. But that's not to say any old grease monkey is a hot commodity.

"I think there is certainly a shortage of qualified people," says Dave Kappert, an executive director at the National Institute for Auto Service Excellence. "But I don't think there's a shortage of warm bodies. There are people out there who are filling holes." Kappert does worry that one day the problem of not having enough mechanics -- also called auto technicians these days -- could become more serious.

Not Your Dad's Mechanic

The automotive industry isn't what it was 20 or even 10 years ago. As cars become far more complex -- some models now have a dozen or more different computers -- the job of servicing them has changed drastically. Good automotive techs today are versed in computers and electronic components.

"Everything that we do is on computers now," explains Greg Ricciardi, the service manager for Lafferty Chevrolet in Warminster, Pennsylvania. "Years ago, if you got somebody who was just mechanically inclined, you could teach them the mechanical end of things and not have a problem." Not so anymore.

Aspiring technicians in today's job market have to be smart, focused and willing to study, says Kappert. "I think there are good job prospects out there for auto mechanics, but one of the cautions with it is that the auto service field has traditionally been filled with people who have been drop-outs of high school or other careers," he adds. "That can't go on anymore." Today's auto technicians must go through a series of certification programs and tests if they hope to be coveted workers.

Although computer diagnostics play an ever-increasing role for auto technicians, their jobs can still have down and dirty moments. Working on cars can require being in awkward positions throughout the workday as well as a good deal of heavy lifting.

Running Low on Qualified Auto Techs

"We're in such dire need of technicians, it's pathetic," bemoans Ricciardi. He says US auto garages and service centers are having an acute problem recruiting qualified auto technicians. Ricciardi adds that a big part of the problem he has recruiting good technicians stems from the fact that qualified people generally don't want to work in an environment where you can "cut yourself. You're working in grease. In the summer, it's hot. In the winter, it's cold. And you're working over a hot engine."

Some think the shortage of qualified technicians may soon become more evident. "If we don't have enough skilled people to fill the ranks anymore, we could run into a scenario where we just really can't get cars fixed anymore, because we're not going to have enough people," says Kappert.

Major auto companies have this issue on their dashboard as well. In fact, most major manufacturers have united to form a partnership called the Automotive Youth Educational Systems (AYES), which has support from more than 300 schools and 3,800 dealers. Its stated goal: "To encourage bright students with a good mechanical aptitude to pursue careers in the ever-changing fields of automotive service technology or collision repair/refinish, and to prepare them for entry-level positions or challenging academic options.

A Viable Option for You?

For those not deterred by the conditions and who keep up with changing times, job prospects are quite good. The BLS projects the industry will expand at a rate of 10 percent to 20 percent through the decade's end. Entrepreneurial opportunities also exist for people with the right skills and motivation; close to 20 percent of mechanics are self-employed.

As for the moneymaking potential in this field, pay varies enormously: Entry-level techs may make around $10 an hour in some parts of the country, and master mechanics can pull down a six-figure salary.

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