An Interview with Auto Technician, Alan Kirkes

An Interview with Auto Technician, Alan Kirkes

Alan Kirkes started his auto mechanic career working in his father's repair shop after school and during the summer as a teen growing up in Talihina, Okla. It all started as a way to earn money to buy a car, albeit not the Porsche of his dreams.

But he also spent time hitting the books, and graduated in the top 10 percent of the class of 2002 at Talihina High School. Alan also was listed among "Who's Who Among American High School Students" and was a member of the Oklahoma Honors Society.

Work at his father's G&R Garage was fun, but after graduating high school various influences led him to start his college education at Carl Albert State College with a major in Intro to Criminal Justice. “It was fun, but nothing compared to cars,” he says. After two semesters, he transferred to the Pro-TECH program at OSU-Okmulgee and found his true calling in the auto repair program designed for technicians at independent shops. He was member of Phi Theta Kappa honor society and on the Presidents Honor Roll and also received the Pro-TECH program's "Outstanding Student" award. He earned his Associate in Applied Science degree with a major in Pro-Tech in the fall of 2005.

Throughout Alan's education, he continued working at his dad's shop, including for his OSU internships. After graduation, networking with one of his former instructors landed Alan an interview with a specialty car repair business in Dallas. But the months went by, so he lined up employment at an Oklahoma dealership. Just days before he started, Louden Motorcar Services came knocking with the job offer. A week later, in April 2006, Alan started at Louden's Dallas shop, which caters to high-end car brands including Porsche, Mercedes, BMW and Volvo. “I am more than fulfilling my dream because I wanted to work on Porsche, but instead, I work on Porsche and so much more,” he says.

Alan Kirkes & His Career

Tell us about your career as an automotive technician.

My career as an automotive technician has been an interesting one. I started part-time when I was fifteen. I absolutely fell in love with cars. I continued to work on cars throughout high school. I attended the Pro-Tech program at OSU-Okmulgee. After graduation, I continued to work at my father's repair shop in my hometown. I applied at Louden Motorcar Services, Inc. in Dallas, Texas, in December, 2005, and interviewed the following month. In April, I still did not have the job in Dallas, so I called Bob Moore Porsche in Oklahoma City; they had no openings, but the Mazda dealership next door did. I interviewed with them the next day, got the job two days later, and was supposed to start on the following Monday. Two days before I was supposed to start at Bob Moore Mazda, I got the job at Louden Motorcars, so I resigned from the Mazda dealership on Monday morning. I felt horrible for doing that, but working at Louden Motorcars was what I had my heart set on. I've been at Louden Motorcars since April 16, and am having the time of my life.

How did the family business help drive your initial interest in auto repairs?

I was fifteen, and wanting to earn money to buy my very first vehicle. I wasn't really into repair work, but I spent my very first summer working in the shop. That summer opened the doors to a whole new world for me. From that point on, all I wanted to do was perform repair work. The family business was all about honesty, integrity, and doing the job right. It was the best learning experience anyone could ask for.

How did your career search unfold? What led you to apply to Louden Motorcar Services Inc.?

I've always been a huge Porsche fanatic. When I took interest in repair work, I thought “what could possibly be better than working on Porsche?” I always told my classmates at OSU that I would one day work at a Porsche repair facility. It was after graduation, I was in the area and I stopped by to see my former instructor, Tim Dwyer. He gave me a business card, and told me that he had met a shop owner in Las Vegas at a CARS convention. It was Steve Louden, owner of Louden Motorcars, who specializes in Porsche, Mercedes, BMW, and Volvo. I later called the number on the card, spoke to Mr. Louden, and had an interview.

What do you enjoy most about your first job?

Without a doubt, what I enjoy most are the people that I work with. The work environment at Louden Motorcars is unbelievable. Every person in that shop is dedicated to excellence. What I especially like is the attitude that everyone has to help one another. There's not a person in that shop that won't stop what they're doing in order to help someone else. They're honest, knowledgeable and fun to work with.

What unique challenges and rewards come from working on high-end vehicles?

A unique challenge with high-end vehicles is the advancement in technology that they have over domestic and Japanese vehicles. It takes more effort to learn this technology, and be able to stay on top of the game. It's rewarding to know that if you can repair a German vehicle, you can repair anything on the road. It's also rewarding to have a sense of accomplishment of being at the top of the industry.

Who (or what) are the biggest inspirations for your career?

The biggest inspirations for my career are my dad, Tim Dwyer and OSU. I've always been mechanically inclined, but my dad was there to teach me how to use that ability. He showed me how to run a business, and showed me that honest shops are successful shops.

OSU refined what my dad had taught me, plus a little more. My instructor, Tim Dwyer, was a major help in this process. He had been a shop owner previous to taking the job at OSU, so it was easy for him to see where I was standing as a person and a technician. While I was waiting for the job opportunity in Dallas, I spoke to Mr. Dwyer to see what his thoughts were, because he's the kind of guy that you can take what he says to heart.

Are you a member of any automotive professional groups or associations? What are the benefits of this type of involvement?

Louden Motorcars is a member of the Automotive Service Association (ASA). It is also a Bosch Authorized Service Center. The benefits of this type of involvement are publicity and professionalism. It is an honor for a service center to be part of these organizations.

You received the "Outstanding Student" award while in the Pro-Tech program at OSU-Okmulgee. Tell us about the award. How important is this recognition to you, personally, and to your career?

The Outstanding Student Award given in the Pro-Tech program is a very special award because it is given to the top students in the class. One of my friends and I were the only two in the class to receive this award. This award was very important to me personally. I remember it like it was yesterday, sitting at the awards banquet on the night of graduation, and Mr. Dwyer presenting me with this award because of my integrity. That really meant a lot to me. I believe it's important to my career because it helps to show the fact that I want to succeed. Obviously, shop owners weren't in class with me, but at least they know that I am capable, and willing, to put forth the effort.

What do you consider your greatest success? Biggest setback?

My greatest success would have to be getting the job at Louden Motorcars. I am more than fulfilling my dream because I wanted to work on Porsche, but instead, I work on Porsche and so much more. I don't really consider to have had any setbacks. I look at everything as a preparation for the future.

What are some of your professional goals for the future?

My professional goals for the future are to become an ASE Certified Master Technician, and to be the absolute best technician that I can possibly be.

Education Information & Advice

How did you decide to go to automotive technician school? And how did you find your schools?

I believe that without an education, a technician will not make it far in the automotive field with the technological advances that cars have today. OSU-Okmulgee has always been very reputable. It is where my dad went to school, and I knew that if I followed in his footsteps, everything would work out.

What was your automotive education at OSU-Okmulgee like?

I received the Pro-Tech Outstanding Student Award, I was a member of Phi Theta Kappa, and I was a member of the Presidents Honor Roll. In my spare time at OSU, I liked to work out, play pool, play basketball, and just enjoy campus life. Coursework concentration was a must. We were taught at an extremely fast rate, and concentration was a big key to success. I ended up with an Associate's Degree in Applied Science, with a major in Pro-Tech.

What led you to transfer from Carl Albert State College to OSU-Okmulgee?

I never really wanted to attend Carl Albert State College, but I had family and friends that convinced me to do something else with my life. In the first semester at Carl Albert, I actually majored in Intro to Criminal Justice. It was fun, but nothing compared to cars.

Would you change anything about your education if you could?

Even if I had the opportunity, I would not change anything about my education. If I had not have attended Carl Albert State College, I would have been in a different Pro-Tech class, and I never would have gotten to know all the great classmates that I had. Also, the two semesters at Carl Albert proved to me that auto repair was what I wanted to do.

Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious schools, departments or programs?

I feel that the most respected and prestigious schools are OSU-Okmulgee, WyoTech, and UTI (Universal Technical Institute). School choice will have some effect on landing a good job. All of the reputable schools have been heard of by business owners and dealerships, so they know what to expect from the entry level technicians.

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?

Class population is a major factor. At schools such as WyoTech and UTI, classes are highly populated, which means less one-on-one time with teacher and student. At OSU, one-on-one time is a common characteristic. They make it a point to not overpopulate their classes. If a student knows what automotive specialty he or she wants to pursue, then there are certain factors that can be taken into consideration. As far as high-end cars are concerned, WyoTech and UTI have those specialty courses, along with Ford, GM and so forth. I believe OSU-Okmulgee is coming up with a program that will cover Mercedes Benz. Pro-Tech is a very unique program because it is designed for independent shops, which do not specialize, but rather cover all makes and models.

Does school choice make a difference in landing a good job?

I feel that the biggest influence an entry level technician can have on a potential job is how he or she displays oneself to the potential employer.

What advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in the automotive technician field?

The advice that I can give to a prospective student is to know that there will always be an ever-growing need for qualified technicians. Not just anyone can repair a car. It takes something special, and if you have that, you can take it as far as you want.

The Actual Work

Describe a typical day (or week) of work for you. What are your key responsibilities?

A typical day or week for me is a busy one. Being the newest and youngest tech in the shop, I have been positioned as the head tire and oil change guy. I get to work in the mornings just before 8:00. I do get to do quite a bit of mechanical repair work along with the tires and oil changes. I even replaced the head gasket on a Mercedes E320. I also have the duty of bringing in the “nicer” vehicles for the night. I try to start bringing in those vehicles at around 5:00 in the evening.

What specialized computer programs do you use?

We have a couple of specialized computer programs for our vehicles. We have a laptop for Porsche and Mercedes. We also have a factory BMW diagnostic computer. I believe it's called the GT-1.

How important is it for graduating students to be well-versed with these programs?

It is important for graduating students to be well versed with these programs. Students in automotive school will learn the basics about what to expect when using one of these machines, but when on the job, they will learn so much more. In school, the instructors only have so much time to cover a major amount of material.

What are the tools of the trade that you use the most? Favorite gadget?

My favorite tool in the shop would have to be the BMW GT-1. I have not had much exposure to this machine, but it is amazing how much it can tell you about the car you're working on.

What are the most rewarding aspects of your job?

The most rewarding aspects of my job are being around the cars, knowing that I can repair them, and getting to drive them after I repair them.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

The most challenging aspect of my job is trying to learn as much as I can every day. Every tech learns something new every day, and no tech will ever know everything about a car.

Interesting on-the-job incident involving a vehicle repair?

Since I started at Louden Motorcars, the only incident that comes to mind was on a Toyota Camry that belongs to a really good customer of ours. I was replacing the Park/Neutral safety switch, and I broke off one of the safety switch mounting bolts in the transaxle. I tried to extract the bolt, and was unable. Luckily, one of the other techs in the shop was able to remove the bolt.

Job Information & Advice

What are the best ways to land an auto technician job?

The best ways to land an auto technician job are to get an education in the field, have a well written resume, be persistent with the company you are applying to, and to display yourself in a professional fashion to your potential employer.

How available are internships and other hands-on learning opportunities?

OSU-Okmulgee is the only training facility that I know of that has student internships. Students will spend eight weeks in class, and eight weeks on internship. Each cycle of class and intern is one trimester. They will have a total of six trimesters. It equals out to two years of training. Internships are hands-on experiences in the field. Students get to work in a shop and make a salary.

How is the job market now in the industry? How do you think it will be in five years?

There are plenty of openings in the job market in our industry. The way cars are advancing, in five years, there will probably be even more openings. There will always be a need for qualified service technicians.

How can the reality of being an automotive technician as a career differ from typical expectations?

The reality of being a technician differs from typical expectations. If you enjoy working on cars for 40-plus hours per week, you will be okay, but it's not all fun and games. Things are going to break, frustration is going occur, you're going to make a misdiagnosis, and there will be times when you are rushed to finish a job because the customer needed the car yesterday. But if you love what you do, it's all worth it. My job is fun because I make it fun.

What are some common myths about your profession?

There are almost too many myths about our profession to name. A major myth is that one day, there will be no independent shops left, and that all repairs will have to be made by a dealership. The truth is that there will always be independent shops. Independent shops have access to every bit of equipment and information as the dealerships have, so they have nothing to worry about in the future. There are also myths about salary, difficulty and education required to be a good technician.

What are considered the hottest specialties developing over the next decade?

Hybrid vehicles are making their way into the automotive industry. Students should get ready to learn about hybrid vehicles, because they are a part of our future. The Toyota Prius is a major hybrid vehicle that is very popular. Talk has also been made about a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, but I'm not exactly sure as to how that is going to work as far as being a popular item. Concept vehicles seem to be the big thing now with Ford, General Motors and Chrysler.

How has the popularity of the Internet affected your profession?

The Internet has definitely affected my profession. The service manuals that we use at Louden Motorcars are actually online. There are also websites such as iATN - International Automotive Technicians' Network that we use when we have an unsolved problem. iATN is full of technicians and repair shops that post questions, answers, and fixes to particular repair related problems.

Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about the automotive industry in order to be successful as an auto technician?

It is very important for someone to be passionate about the automotive industry in order to be successful as a technician. If you're not passionate about what you do, you're not going to put forth the effort needed to learn all you can about the newest technological advances.

Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to succeed as an automotive technician?

If you want to be an automotive technician, there is nothing stopping you. It's a great career to have, and it's something that will always be needed. It takes a very intelligent individual to keep up with the technology and to be able to repair vehicles to “like new” condition. It's difficult, and it's challenging, but those are two of the traits that make it fun and rewarding.

Editor's Note: At the time of this interview, Alan Kirkes worked at Louden Motorcars. He has since shifted gears to join Grand Prairie Ford in Texas. If you would like to contact Alan Kirkes with questions about the automotive field, click here.

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