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.
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.”