A fast food job Michele Winn was working after a two-year stint as a pre-business major at Indiana University - Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) brought her into contact with all sorts of professionals, including the folks who worked at the tire & service station right next door. It was only a matter of time before she left the burger wars for an office job with the shop. As she explained the ins and outs of service needs to customers, Ms. Winn discovered that she truly enjoyed the technical aspects of the job. Some investigation led her to attend Lincoln Technical Institute, where she graduated the 15-month Automotive Service Management Associate Degree program with a 4.0 grade point average and a perfect attendance record.
The Indiana resident currently works for Linder Technical Services in Indianapolis, which trouble-shoots problem vehicles referred from other shops, reconditions fuel injectors and offers ongoing education classes for auto techs. Ms. Winn splits her time between the three areas of Linder's business.
Ms. Winn is a member of the International Automotive Technician Network (IATN) and the Car Care Council Women's Board; through the shop, she is additionally part of the Automotive Service Association and the ASE Blue Seal of Excellence program (through the Institute for Automotive Service Excellence).
As a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field, Ms. Winn works hard to dispel the myth that an automotive technician career path is “men's work.” While there is some lifting and manual labor, much of the work on modern vehicles counts on brainpower rather than muscle power, she notes. “All of the people who laughed at me and talked about me behind my back saying that there was no way I would ever succeed as an auto tech are the ones that have kept me going,” she says.
How did you break into the automotive technician field?
I was working at a local fast food restaurant while I was going to college. At least two times each week, the guys who worked at the tire & service shop next door would come over for lunch. After several months, I would recognize them and we would make small talk. Eventually, the manager of the tire shop offered me a job, so I started working for them figuring payroll and bank deposits and soon started answering phone calls and pricing tires and services to customers. My interest in getting hands-on developed from there.
How did your career unfold to allow you to advance to where you are today?
My first job after graduating from Lincoln Tech was at another tire & service shop in a suburb west of Indianapolis. I was there for about six years and during that time, my boss sent me (along with a couple of his other techs) to some training classes. The classes happened to be held at Linder Technical Services, which is where I currently work.
I met lots of new people attending the training classes as well as meeting the staff here at Linder Technical Services. I was still working at the same tire & service shop, and about two years after I had attended training classes, the office manager from Linder Technical Services called and offered me a job. The main benefits to changing jobs were: No. 1, the shop is air-conditioned and No. 2. The shop is closed on weekends.
I continue to work for Linder Technical Services in Indianapolis. Our company is very unique in that we have more than one business in the same building. We work on cars, many of which have come to us from other shops that have been unable to diagnose the problem. We recondition fuel injectors and ship them all over the U.S. and Canada. We also offer training classes to working technicians to help them stay current with today's technology. I work two to three days each week diagnosing cars, I help in the fuel injection lab with shipping product, and I also help as an instructor in some of the training classes. As you can tell, my job changes every day, so I never get bored. It's great!
What do you enjoy most about your career?
Every day is different. I work on different vehicles with different types of problems all the time. Plus, the technology that goes into new vehicles is changing at a very rapid rate, so I am always learning about new designs, parts and ways to service new vehicles.
What unique challenges and rewards come from working in the automotive field?
I would say one of the biggest challenges is keeping up with changing technology. Just like a doctor would attend a clinic to learn about new procedures, we constantly need to update ourselves on the latest technology on today's vehicles. In my opinion, doctors have it easy. The human body really only comes in two models, male and female. In the case of vehicles, there are new model vehicles introduced every year along with all the changes in computer systems and electronics that are on the existing models. We have to keep in touch with all of it.
Who are the biggest inspirations for your career?
There really isn't one person who has inspired me. However, I can tell you that all of the people who laughed at me and talked about me behind my back saying that there was no way I would ever succeed as an auto tech are the ones that have kept me going. I wouldn't have pushed as hard as I have without the reminders of those voices in my head. I had to prove them wrong.
Are you a member of any automotive professional groups or associations? What are the benefits of this type of involvement?
I am a member of International Automotive Technician Network (iATN), which is an online group of over 35,000 technicians from across the world. There are many forums where you can post “help” requests if you run into something in a vehicle that you need help with. You can also send out an e-mail “help” request that is e-mailed to thousands of members who can respond to you directly. It is also a good resource for factory information as GM, Ford, Toyota and others provide online technical information to iATN that can be accessed by its members.
I am a member of the Car Care Council Women's Board, which is an organization that targets women to educate them about vehicle repair.
As a shop, we are a member of the ASE Blue Seal of Excellence program. This means that all of the technicians working here are ASE-certified in all areas in which they provide services. ASE is the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence.
Have you received any awards or recognition in the automotive field?
I'm not sure if there are many awards for the type of work that I do. One thing I am extremely proud of is being recognized at my Lincoln Technical Institute graduation as having perfect attendance and a 4.0 GPA.
How important is this type of recognition to you, personally, and to your career?
Very important! Regarding the first job I landed after graduation, I know for a fact that the main reason I was hired was because of my perfect attendance record. My boss at that time said that he also graduated from Lincoln Technical Institute with perfect attendance and he knew that I would be dependable. He said that he didn't care how much I already knew because as long as I showed up for work, he could teach me.
What do you consider your biggest setback?
Graduating from Lincoln Technical Institute with honors, but then still having trouble getting a job.
What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?
Professionally I hope to never stop learning and stay current with today's technology. Personally, I hope to be a good role model and mentor for my daughter and provide her with a solid, happy home.
Tell us about your education.
After graduating from high school, I attended IUPUI where I took general studies in preparation for a business degree. I completed approximately two years at IUPUI before I quit and started working full-time. It was two years later when I decided to attend Lincoln Technical Institute. I enrolled in their Automotive Service Management Associate Degree program. It was a 15-month program after which I graduated with a 4.0 GPA and perfect attendance.
How did you decide to go to automotive technician school?
While I was working in the office of the tire and service shop, I needed to become familiar with different parts and services that we offered so when I called customers, I could explain it to them. In order to get a better understanding, I spent time out in the service bays and asked lots of questions. The more I learned, the more interested I became in the actual “repair” aspect of the business.
How did you find a school?
I did not want to relocate for school, so it made my choices easier. There were basically two programs here in the Indianapolis area: Lincoln Technical Institute and Ivy Tech Community College. I visited both campuses and they both had pros and cons. Lincoln Tech ended up being a better fit for me. The length of the program at the time I graduated was only 15 months, and the class times easily fit into my work schedule.
Would you change anything about your education if you could?
No! I learned enough during school to get me started and the rest I learned on the job. I don't think it's possible to learn everything you need to know in school, nor is it possible to learn it all on the job. It should be a blend of the two.
How can prospective automotive technicians assess their skill and aptitude?
Taking one or more of the ASE certification tests, which are given twice each year, can test your aptitude. These tests are written by O.E. reps as well as working technicians, so while it's hard to assess “skill” by a written exam, it is definitely a well-balanced evaluation of what a technician “should know” about a particular field or specialty.
What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school?
I would look for a school with an internship program and job placement assistance after graduation. Of course, price and class schedules would also be a factor for most people.
Are there any different considerations for those who know that they want to specialize in a certain automotive specialty?
The obvious answer is if you're looking to specialize in “hot rods” or “performance,” then you should make sure that the prospective school offers a program specifically to fit your need.
Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious schools, departments or programs?
Truthfully, the industry as a whole sees the quality of post-secondary education (technical schools and/or colleges) degrading as the years go by. I hear more positive comments about high-school “shop” programs than I do about technical schools and colleges.
Does school choice make a difference in landing a good job?
I don't think the school itself makes much difference to a prospective employer. Your grades and attendance while in school as well as your appearance during your interview are the big factors.
What advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in the automotive technician field?
Understand that your education will not stop once you graduate. If you plan to make this your career, you will always need more training.
Job Information & Advice
What are the best ways to land an auto technician job?
I've only had three jobs in 13+ years in the automotive field, and two of them came by word of mouth.
How available are internships and other hands-on learning opportunities?
I know that Lincoln Technical Institute as well as Ivy Tech State College here in Indianapolis both offer internship programs. Some are factory-sponsored (meaning sponsored by GM, Toyota, etc.) and some are sponsored by independent repair shops. There are also some internship programs available for high school students, which is a great way to get some on-the-job experience to make sure you're choosing the right career before you spend a couple of years in college or technical school.
How is the job market now in the industry? How do you think it will be in five years?
I believe after 9/11, when manufacturers were offering 0% financing on lots of vehicles, that a large part of the U.S. population purchased new vehicles. This has led to some independent repair shops being slower than normal or having slower growth than in previous years. However, in a few short years, these vehicles will all be out of warranty again and needing lots of service and repair. At the same time, there are many older technicians who are deciding to retire or look for a new line of work because they are overwhelmed with the new technology and are not willing to update their skills. I believe the outlook is very good and will continue to get better.
How can the reality of being an automotive technician as a career differ from typical expectations?
I think many new technicians are discouraged after graduating from school, getting a job and then finding out that paying back school loans and buying tools each week takes a large portion of the money they make.
I think that schools need to do a better job of educating their students on what type of tools they need and how costly they are. Most schools hand their students a “basic hand tool set” and they are led to believe that they can take these tools to their first job and start working. That simply isn't true. On average, a technician owns over $20,000 of tools, plus the expense of the tool box. The tool expense is something that will never go away. As manufacturers produce new models of vehicles, sometimes a new “special” tool is required to perform certain services.
What are some common myths about your profession?
What are considered the hottest specialties developing over the next decade?
Computers, networking and electrical are the up and coming specialties. Today's cars have multiple computers that are all networked together. A strong, solid knowledge of electrical systems and computers is needed to diagnose problems with these systems.
Do automotive technician typically use any specialized computer programs? If so, how important is it for graduating students to be well-versed with these programs?
In the independent repair shop, we use a variety of scan tools (basically hand-held PC's) each day along with PC-based lab scopes. Computer skills are a must, but there isn't one specific program that we use all the time.
Has the popularity of the Internet affected your profession?
Absolutely! New customers are able to find our shop every day via our website at www.lindertech.com. They can check out our products and services and it's a great way for us to advertise. On the repair side of the business, we use the Internet to access service information such as flow charts and wiring diagrams. We also use the Internet to download calibrations to “Flash” computers in late-model vehicles.
What are some of the trends and hot issues in the field which could help students plan for the future?
Electronics computers and hybrid or alternative fuel vehicles.
What final career advice can you offer to future automotive technicians?
Take care of the customer's car like it was your Mother's
Editor's Note: If you would like to follow-up with Michele Winn personally about her experience in the automotive field, click here.