When the bottom fell out of the dotcom field, information technology worker Todd Fox examined his IT employment options and didn't like what he saw.
With a long-held interest in automobiles, he cast about for educational opportunities and the automotive program at Lake Washington Technical College (LWTC) in Kirkland, Wash. and its emphasis on standards and input from professionals caught his attention.
While at LWTC, he joined the Phi Theta Kappa Washington Academic team, and was nominated to the PTK National Academic Team. Todd graduated Magna Cum Laude with an associate's of applied science degree in automotive repair, and an apprenticeship with the AC Delco TSEP program as a student led to his first job. His can-do attitude and technical skills led to a promotion to his current position as a technical supervisor at a busy independent shop in Seattle.
"Unless mass transit makes some huge advances, or automobile manufacturers come up with a cheap car that never needs repair, there will always be a need for technicians," Todd tells prospective automotive school students.
How did you decide to go to automotive school and how did you find a school?
I had been working in the IT industry and after the dotcom fallout I was having difficulty finding a job. I had lots of experience, but no degree. It became obvious to me that I needed to go back to school. I decided that if I was going to go back to school I would leave the IT field; although the pay was decent, the hours could be very long and I was tired of being "on call" all of the time.
I have always had an interest in automobiles, and it was an industry that would allow me to use my logical skills, pay fairly well and allow me to work a normal work schedule and never be "on call." I chose the school that I did (LWTC) because out of all the schools in my area with automotive programs it was the only one that had (or at least made a big point of letting people know it had) an advisory board of people from the automotive industry to make sure that the curriculum being taught met the industry's current needs.
Tell us about your automotive education.
I received an AA degree in automotive repair. I graduated Magna Cum Laude and on the Presidents List. I was a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Washington Academic team, and nominated to the PTK National Academic Team.
After two quarters I became involved in the AC Delco TSEP program and apprenticed at the job I am currently working. Students at LWTC were allowed to take the same AC Delco classes that working technicians took at night, so I signed up for and took every one of those that came to the school. They included specialty classes in HVAC, fuel injection, electrical troubleshooting, etc.
How can prospective automotive mechanics assess their skill and aptitude?
Fix things, lots of things. Anytime someone has a broken item, no matter what it is, try and fix it if they are willing to let you. Try putting things together without looking at them, while in an uncomfortable position. Try to fix things that require understanding the theory behind how they operate; even better, try to fabricate wholly new items that require understanding of an operating theory. If you can do these things repeatedly without getting overly upset, a career as a technician might be for you.
What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school?
Are there any different considerations for those who know that they want to specialize in a certain automotive specialty?
The biggest decision when choosing a school is whether the student wants to work for a dealership or an independent shop. Many schools gear their programs towards particular manufacturers and prepare students to enter those types of dealerships as technicians. Other schools teach a little more rounded curriculum and are ideal for a student interested in working for themselves, or at a non-brand specific repair shop.
Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious schools, departments or programs? Does school choice make a difference in landing a good job?
I am unaware of any schools that are more highly thought of than others. I don't believe that any student, regardless of the school they attend or the grades they get while attending that school gets a "good job." Good jobs are made through hard, accurate work, a positive attitude and the recognition that comes with such effort.
What can students applying to schools do to increase their chances of being accepted?
I am unaware of any automotive school that refuses any prospective student that is capable of learning and paying for their education.
What advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in the automotive field?
Take as many classes as you can while in the education phase of your career, even classes that aren't required for your program. Once you have begun working fulltime, further education is much more of a challenge.
Tell us about your career as an automotive mechanic. How did you break into the field? How did your career unfold to allow you to advance to where you are today?
I began working for the shop I am at now after my 2nd quarter at LWTC. I entered an apprentice program sponsored by AC Delco called TSEP. I am now the technical supervisor at the shop because I do everything my employer asks me to do to the best of my ability and with a positive attitude. I take changing the oil on a car just as seriously as I troubleshoot the most complex electrical problem.
What do you enjoy most about your career?
The thing I enjoy most about my career is solving problems that others have failed to solve. When a vehicle has been to several other shops that could not fix it, and I find the solution, I smile for days.
What unique challenges and rewards come from working in the automotive field?
The breadth of understanding that is necessary to be an effective, upper level technician. It requires an understanding of a large number of mechanical and electrical systems, and how they interact. Take the suspension systems on a newer Cadillac, for example.
Whereas a car 30 years ago had simple non-adjustable mechanical shocks, a newer Cadillac's suspension system could include electronically adjustable shocks that are controlled with the help of a dozen sensors and three different computer modules talking to each other over a serial network. To troubleshoot this system, a technician has to understand when and why the shocks get firmer or softer, what inputs the computer uses to make its decisions and how all this information gets moved around. It can be very overwhelming. The unique rewards in the automotive field can include getting to see rare and special vehicles, hotrods, supercars and the like.
Who are the biggest inspirations for your career?
The technicians I see that do the same thing I do but faster and more accurately.
What do you consider your greatest success? Biggest setback?
Anytime I repair an intermittent electrical problem on the first try I consider that a huge success. My biggest setback was probably a two-week period when I got absolutely nothing done right. I had to do a couple different mechanical repairs twice because I made mistakes, and I didn't have a single correct diagnosis in that period. I seriously considered a career change at that point.
What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?
I would like to get proficient enough that I make a correct diagnosis the first time, every time.
Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about the automotive industry in order to be successful?
I don't believe that you need to be passionate about the automotive industry to be successful at your job; success comes through understanding and hard work.
Do you think that it's important to truly enjoy the field in order to be happy in life?
I definitely believe that one has to enjoy the field to be happy in life. How can a person be happy if they do not enjoy eight hours or more of their day?
Describe a typical day of work for you. What exactly do you do? What are your key responsibilities? On a basic level, what skills does your job demand?
In the morning I finish up anything left from the night before and begin diagnosing cars on the schedule for the day. As I make diagnoses, I write estimates and order parts. As customers arrive I greet them and write work orders. As parts begin to arrive, I start repairs on the vehicles that were previously diagnosed, and then notify customers of their completion. As customers come in to pick up their vehicles, I explain what was done and act as cashier. All of us at the shop are responsible for every phase of the repair process, from writing up the vehicle through repair to cashiering. I do a little more troubleshooting and customer service than anybody except the owner, and a little less actual repair work. On the most basic level, my job requires mechanical and electrical skills, customer service skills, and money handling skills.
What are the tools of the trade that you use the most? Favorite gadget?
The tool I use most is my Fluke 88 multimeter. My favorite gadget is my power probe.
What are the most challenging aspects of your job?
The most challenging aspect of the job for me is the customers. Some of them can be quite difficult to deal with. People sometimes get very upset about their vehicle and I have a hard time dealing with upset people.
What are the greatest rewards?
The greatest reward of my job comes when someone thanks me for fixing their problem. I never get tired of hearing the words "thank you." Homemade food to show appreciation is also a very welcome thing.
What contributions do you feel the automotive field has made to society?
The automobile gives us freedom. I am able to live in a nice quiet neighbor hood in Southeast King County, but work at a busy shop in Seattle and still spend quality time with my family because of the freedom my car grants me.
Best automotive mechanic tip for a novice?
If something is frustrating you, find a way to remove the frustration, or ask for help. Don't get mad at the vehicle, it doesn't care.
Interesting on-the-job incident involving a vehicle repair?
I was reaching for some wiring at the back of an engine and a mouse ran up my arm. I jumped up and hit my head on the hood nearly knocking myself unconscious.
Describe your ideal job and your nightmare job.
My ideal job would involve nothing but troubleshooting. I would not actually make any repairs, just solve problems all day. My nightmare job would be doing a repetitive mechanical-only job like doing oil changes, putting on tires, etc.
What are your top five pet peeves as an automotive professional?
What are the best ways to land an automotive mechanic job?
Either go to school and take advantage of whatever apprenticeship program they offer, or find a shop that's willing to take someone with no experience and work hard.
How available are internships and other hands-on learning opportunities?
Every automotive school I'm aware of has at least one internship program. LWTC had two different programs while I was attending.
How is the job market now in the industry? How do you think it will be in five years?
There is currently a need for technicians, and unless mass transit makes some huge advances, or automobile manufacturers come up with a cheap car that never needs repair, there will always be a need for technicians. There's a lot of "churn" in the automotive industry due to injuries and people that aren't fast enough to make a livable wage.
How can the reality of being an automotive mechanic as a career differ from typical expectations?
It takes a while to get good enough to make decent money. The schools and larger employers like to tell prospective students about the kind of money that can be made as a technician, but the good money takes a great deal of time and effort to achieve. I keep in touch with a number of the other people I went through school with, and many of them only make half of what I do.
What are considered the hottest specialties developing over the next decade?
Hybrid technologies and higher voltage electrical systems are definitely areas that are going to be growing quickly in the near future.
Do automotive mechanics typically use any specialized computer programs? If so, how important is it for graduating students to be well-versed with these programs?
Most mechanics will at least use an information database such as Mitchell or AllData. If they do customer service, then they will probably also use a customer management system like ServiceCenter. Being familiar with these types of programs, and computers in general is a good idea, but due to the large variety of these types of programs, learning a particular one in advance of employment is pointless unless you know for sure where you are going to work.
Has the popularity of the Internet affected your profession?
Yes, customers use online forums to do their own research into the problems that their cars are having and then come to us with their opinions. Sometimes they are on the right track, sometimes they lack a basic understanding of the problem and are way off base.
What other career advice can you give to future automotive mechanics?
Don't overspecialize. Get comfortable with as many parts of the car as you can. If all you want to do is repair air conditioning, you're going to be pretty lean for work eight months out of the year in the Pacific Northwest. It's O.K. to enjoy doing one thing more than another, but be willing to do it all, you'll work more and go farther. I've worked many hours of overtime due to my willingness to step away from the electrical stuff I like to do and replace a water pump or perform a transmission service.
Editor's Note: If you would like to follow-up with Todd Fox personally about his experience in automotive repair school or on the job, click here.