How innovation has changed the job of an auto repair technician


Cory Funkhouser is a auto repair technician at Bethesda Import Specialist. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For The Washington Post)

On a warm morning in May, a group of students is huddled around a white Chrysler Cirrus parked outside the garage at the Excel Institute, a Northeast Washington job training facility that prepares participants for careers in auto repair.

Their teacher is toting a $6,000 portable computer, and he’s got it plugged into the vehicle, which has been unexpectedly shutting down. Using data that the portable computer has collected from the master computer inside the car, the group is getting closer to zeroing in on the problem. The fuel pressure is good. It has 14.7 parts of air to every one part fuel, the correct amount.

By process of elimination, they determine that the ignition system isn’t generating a spark. The computer helps them figure out exactly why. (Corrosion inside the distributor, it turns out, is the culprit.)

“Instead of taking eight hours to diagnose a car, you can do it in 30 minutes,” said Eddie Cathey, an instructor at Excel.

Innovations in the automotive industry have gradually transformed what it means to be an auto repair worker. As the cars on our streets have become more computerized, so, too, has the job of maintaining and fixing these vehicles. And so a trade that was once largely mechanical is today primarily technical, and therefore requires workers to be skilled computer users, strong readers and able mathematicians.

Alfonso Galvez, right, an instructor at the Excel Institute, an auto repair school, with students Alisa Benjamin, David Turner and Jacob Milan. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For The Washington Post)

For someone in the Washington area with only a high school education, it’s a job that might offer a stronger shot than most at climbing the economic ladder.

In this region, Labor Department data show that the mean annual wage for auto repair technicians was $47,710 in 2012, a figure that compares favorably to mean wages for many other jobs that do not require a college education. For example, the mean wage for food service jobs in the Washington area was $24,260; for hotel clerks, $25,750.

The mean wage for auto repair technicians here also exceeds the nationwide mean for these workers of $39,060.

In addition to offering the prospect of higher income, experts and employers say that demand for workers in this trade is surging as aging baby boomers retire and too few diagnosticians have entered the trade to replace them.

It’s not just computer-savvy diagnosticians that are in short supply. Experts say more workers are needed who can do simple maintenance work such as brake pad replacements or oil changes. As cars are built better, they are less likely to break down, and more likely to need routine upkeep.

For students at Excel and others like them, auto repair training could be a gateway to a higher standard of living and greater employment stability.

**

Antwane Peoples enrolled at Excel after more than seven years of service in the Navy and a stint working as a government contractor in records management and document imaging jobs. As a father of five children, he had become weary of the uncertainty surrounding the federal budget and how it might affect his job.

“Doing the contracting work, every October 1, I was always looking over my back,” Peoples said. “Trying to support a family, it gets a little hectic.”

And so he decided it was time for a career change.

The auto repair trade, Peoples said, “just seems like more stability.”

Peoples is poised to graduate from Excel in 2014. When he completes his training, he plans to take a test that would certify him to service automotive electrical systems. With hybrid vehicles gaining popularity, he expects such skills will be in high demand.

The Excel Institute, founded in 1998, prepares students to earn a variety of Automotive Service Excellence certifications, which are the industry standard for verifying one’s expertise.

As the job of an auto repair worker has become more technical, Excel has moved to adapt its educational requirements. The institute used to admit students who had not completed high school; now, a high school diploma is a prerequisite. Executive Director Cheryl Edwards said that’s because the job now demands more sophisticated math and reading competencies.

Edwards is primarily focused on recruiting veterans and low-income young adults into the program. Her pitch to them, she says, is simple:

“They can work anywhere in the world. It is a universal certification,” Edwards said. “And they now have a skill where they are capable of starting out at $40,000.”

For experienced, top-notch workers in this trade, salaries can be significantly higher. Experts say it’s not uncommon for master technicians — those who have earned a specific suite of ASE certifications — to earn up to $150,000 per year.

At Gainesville-based Curry’s Auto Service, chief executive Matt Curry said his most highly skilled workers draw six-figure salaries.

“My top five technicians, the guys that are the computer gurus, those guys get paid top dollar, and they’re in demand,” Curry said.

**

There are a variety of ways in which innovation is reshaping the job of an auto repair worker. Perhaps most obviously, the growing market for hybrid cars has led to greater demand for technicians who have a mastery of electrical systems.

But other changes, too, are propelling the shift. In-car entertainment features such as iPhone docks or back-seat television screens must be repaired by someone with electronic and computer-based skills, said Trish Serratore, president of the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation.

And a car’s performance now depends heavily on computers.

“Computers on vehicles are controlling everything: Braking, engine management, fuel consumption, heated seats and all that good stuff,” Serratore said. “Technicians have to be very skilled at tracing those problems to their source.”

**

Rapid innovation in auto technology has meant that even experienced auto repair workers have to regularly brush up on their skills.

“They have to constantly be certified every year in several different areas,” said Tammy Darvish, vice president at Silver Spring-based Darcars Automotive Group. “Just because you were certified in 2012, you have to be recertified in 2013.”

It’s a similar setup for technicians who work at local Volkswagen dealerships. Bill McAleese, an instructor at a regional training center in Ashburn for Volkswagen technicians, said he holds training sessions 132 days a year for about 1,600 workers to keep them up-to-date.

Long-time technicians are required to come to the center once a year, but McAleese says he encourages them to come even more frequently.

“I’ve seen stuff that is going to be coming out in the next five years and what these guys are in for,” McAleese said. “It might not be that the basic, simple components are changing, but everything around them is changing rapidly.”

Repair workers affiliated with dealerships, such as those working for Darcars or Volkswagen franchises, receive training directly from the manufacturer on a vehicle’s latest updates. But some competitors have to take a different approach.

“The dealers have the advantage on that because the dealers have factory training. Independents like me, it becomes trial and error,” said Mike Cunningham, owner of repair shop Bethesda Import Specialist.

But no matter what kind of shop technicians work from, McAleese said they need to be proactive.

“More now than ever, technicians have to take the initiative to get out there and learn this before it gets in the market,” McAleese said.

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economic news.

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