Mechanic as Career ChoiceDear Ole Mechanic;

My ten-year-old grandson seems to be good at tinkering with mechanical things, sometimes at the expense of his grades, as he is only an average student in school.  Should we encourage him to become a mechanic?  Is there any future in that line of work?  Are there any special classes that would help him if he decides to go that direction?  Is there any way to see if this is where his interests really lie?


Tinkering Opa

Dear Grandpa;

While he still has some growing and a lot of maturing to do, there is currently a shortage of well-trained, good automotive technicians.  That is what good mechanics are called now.  From what I can see, there will be an even greater shortage in the future.  Part of the problem is the complexity of today’s vehicles.  Just understanding and being able to work on the mechanical part of a vehicle isn't enough; although,  understanding the mechanical workings is essential.  There are some specialized machinist and mechanical areas where a good understanding of the electrical system and electronics is not necessary.  Some examples of these areas would be engine rebuild, muffler and exhaust work, and wheel alignment work.  These would require only basic electrical and electronic knowledge.  You might ask where electronic knowledge would be needed for exhaust work.  Most vehicles today have two or more exhaust oxygen sensors in them, and if you do not take precautions when wire welding the exhaust pipe together, you can fry the engine computer.  An alignment and suspension specialist must deal with active suspension systems that are electronically controlled.  The problem with these specialized areas is that there is little chance for advancement without a more extensive background.

As for the “average grades,” I would not worry too muc,h because when there is a better defined direction, then desire usually goes up.  As desire goes up, usually the grades go up too.  It is important that he get the basics.  Reading is needed to read service manuals, basic math is needed for for working with digital and analog meter readouts, and social skills will be needed to deal with customers. There is also another important area where encouragement will be needed, and that is in applied physics.  This could even be difficult to find even in today’s schools, as they tend to teach classic textbook physics.  For example, “the temperature, pressure, and volume laws for a gas state that if the temperature goes up and the volume remains the same, then the pressure will go up”.  True but soooo boring that I did not include the caloric BTU (British Thermal Unit) part of the law.  An applied physics class would ask something like “the combustion chamber in an engine has 130 psi of pressure after compression.  When the spark plug ignites the fuel air mixture the temperature goes up 1,000 degrees.  What is the pressure on top of the piston?”  That would be a problem that relates to the real world, and the solution involves not only the temperature, pressure, and volume laws, but also includes the math calculation of the area of the top of a piston.  If your grandson can get a reasonable grasp on applied physics, it will make the understanding of vehicles much easier.  As he gets older, electrical and electronics classes  would be a big help with all of the computers in today’s vehicles.  I see the electronics area in vehicles getting bigger, and I suspect that the electronics in cars will be around even after the internal combustion engine is gone.  A high-school education and a good technical-college or vocational-school program should put your grandson in good shape to enter the job market.

He will not start out at the highest pay level until he gets some experience.  With experience, just what can he expect to make?  Go into any auto dealership or repair shop and ask what their shop labor-rate is.  Divide that by one third, and that is about what their experienced technicians make in wages and benefits.  It can be a good living if he enjoys the work.

You ask if you should encourage him.  You did sign your letter “A tinkering Opa” so while you are tinkering, explain what you are doing and why.  Teach him “righty-tighty, lefty-loosey,” if you haven’t already done so.  At gift-giving times, you could give him some tools or a toolbox.  If you do that, be sure to tell him the importance of taking care of tools.  Then, stand back and watch.  If he takes care of the tools and uses them. then it is something of an indication of his interest.  It will be something that he can use the rest of his life--even if he doesn’t become a mechanic.

Now, if he chooses to pursue a job as a technician, is he limited to that job all his life?  NO!  there are always advancement jobs such as Service Writer, Shop Foreman, Service Manager, Technical Writer, Teacher (with enough experience), Technical Illustrator (if he is artistic), Repair Shop Manager or even Shop Owner.  I have even seen really good line-technicians wind up with middle-management positions with the major vehicle manufacturers or as a major supplier to manufacturers.  Jack Roush of NASCAR® fame comes to mind in that last category.  By the way all of this can apply to your granddaughter, too, as there now are many gals in the business.

Heck, if either of them gets really, really, really good, they might even get my job.

Herr Professor Nutzanbolts