From Tech to Mech
May 7, 2010 4:41 PM   Subscribe

Help me transition from being a system administrator to being some flavour of mechanic or tell me if I shouldn't bother.

I love to fix things. After 10 years in various IT positions I've found one that I really enjoy. I have a lot of freedom, good co-workers and I get to fix things on a regular basis. The problem is that I've had a bit of an "Office Space" moment.

I'm tired of staring at a screen all day. I'm tired of constantly having to learn new technologies. I'm tired of being so damn stationary. I want to continue to fix things but I want to use my hands and my body in addition to my brain. To me, becoming a mechanic (auto, motorcycle or aircraft) seems like a great fit; however, I could be very wrong.

I believe the problem solving and troubleshooting skills I have would be very transferable to this procession; I just need to go back to the basics. I know there are automotive repair classes at the local community college but I don't want to give up my job to go to school if I'm not sure about this transition.

First of all, do I have unreasonable expectations of what it is to be a mechanic?

Secondly, what are some of the things I can do to see if I enjoy the work? I don't have enough space to start disassembling motorcycles or automobile engines but I could tackle a non-functioning lawnmower or chainsaw engine. Would this be indicative of the sort of thing I would be doing as a mechanic?

Lastly, is going back to school the best path to getting into the industry or are self-starters better rewarded?
posted by talkingmuffin to Work & Money (5 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Someone needs to recommend Crawford's book; it's been discussed at least once or twice on MeFi.

Life is short -- I think you should try it and see how it goes; perhaps you can dabble before taking the full plunge, by taking a hobbyist's class in the evening at the CC.

That said, being a mechanic doesn't get you out of needing to constantly learn new technologies. Guess what happens when people start bringing hybrids into your shop, or clean-burning diesels?
posted by Forktine at 5:39 PM on May 7, 2010

Best answer: Wow, that is a big jump. The funny thing is that I've (sort of) done it.

What I did: Worked in computers, eventually becoming a sysadmin. Did that for roughly five years. The dotcom bubble burst and I ended up moving back to home go to community college and then transferred to a four year university to get my degree in English. During that time, I had a lot of different jobs, and one of those was classic VW mechanic. I had two VW's and a Porsche and loved old German aircooled engines, and it was a total blast to be able to work on cars. However, I wasn't really that experienced - just what I had done to my own cars. Now I've graduated and am back working in computers again, coming full circle.

Here are my observations of going from computer desk job to VW mechanic and back:

1) It's manual labor. It's not digging ditches, but it's a helluva lot more than being a cube jockey. I was only a mechanic for about six weeks, but in that time I built significant muscle tone and lost weight. Your hands will hurt like hell initially and you will go home every night absolutely exhausted.

2) Your troubleshooting skills will help you up to a point. The difference is that cars obey the rules of physics and logic (mostly). Anything electrical or emissions related is pretty complicated and sometimes confounding. If you want to work on new cars, there is a lot of specialty equipment used to diagnose and troubleshoot, so picking up working with that technology won't be too difficult for you.

3) Working on other people's cars is a lot more dangerous than working on other people's computers. If you fuck up a brake job, people can die.

4) The automotive repair industry is similar to the construction industry in the sense of having fairly lax drug use policies. You will, at some point, get to deal with someone who is high or drunk. Learn to cope.

5) Many of the people that you interact with will seem to be dumber than a box of rocks, and yet they may be an almost infinitely better mechanic than you. Learn to cope with that, too.

6) Mechanics jobs are very scarce, at least in the US right now. I know mechanics with 20 years experience across multiple brands that are out of work.

7) I found that learning about computers takes a large amount of time, but a lot of that time is spent thinking or reading or screwing around with the machine. Learning to be a mechanic takes a similar level of time DOING except everything takes five times as long. It's easy to click and type to try different things, it's another matter to have to disassemble fifteen different components before you even GET to what you need to fix.

8) When you start you will be slow, I never did it long enough to be fast, and I have seen fast. I have seen a clutch replacement done on a 68 VW beetle, correctly, in under fifteen minutes. To be fair the mechanic who did it had enough methamphetamine in his system at the time to kill an entire grammar school, but hell if it wasn't impressive.

9) You are going to be at the bottom of any totem pole in the local mechanic hierarchy. There are people that have been doing this since they were twelve. And many of those people are out of work. They have connections, and you have none. This is a very tough road.

10) You won't make nearly as much money as you do now for quite awhile.

Overall, I like where I am now. I have a house with a garage where I can work on cars, but I don't like it as much as I used to. Here are some of the things I miss:

1) The satisfaction of actually having built or fixed a real object. All of the companies I worked at before went out of business, and all of the servers and networks I built were sold at auction. Working on something real can be really satisfying.

2) Discovering neat mechanics tricks, things that seem obvious after you see them, like putting washers on a thin screwdriver and then placing the tip of the screwdriver on the stud, letting the washers fall onto the stud without having to reach down with your hand and possibly drop them!

3) Tools. I love tools. Snap-On tools are very expensive, but they are soo nice.

I don't miss the pain and the bumps and bruises and long hours and overall low pay. Being lowest on the totem pole in a whole new field can be pretty hard, especially since in the back of your mind you know you could be sitting in a cloth covered box staring at a screen, not smelling of kerosene and armpits.

My recommendation: Get yourself a situation where you can work on a car or a motorcycle. Small engine work won't give you the same experience. Find a friend with a junker and help him fix it. Go to your local wrecking yard where you can pull your own parts to buy and just take things apart to see how it all fits together. Get a copy of How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive and read it, find as many books on auto repair as you can and read them. You can get a LOT of information out of books but to really understand what is going on you will have to try it for yourself. Get access to a space where you can throw down some cardboard and get dirty. I highly recommend just getting an old Volkswagen, or old car of any kind, and turning it into your daily driver. That will force you to learn quick! You'll get a taste for what it involves and even if you don't become a Real Mechanic you'll know that when shit really hits the fan at least you'll be able to fix your own transportation.
posted by Skrubly at 5:43 PM on May 7, 2010 [4 favorites]

i've worked computers (sysadmin), and i've worked trades (framing houses). at the moment i'm a musician, and have been for years. but if/when the musician thing comes to an end, there's no question which job i'd go back to: trades.

for me it's the combination of physical labor, which helps keep you in shape, with using your mind as well (lots of math and angles in carpentry, plus reading a plan is actually pretty complicated) plus the satisfaction of actually doing something concrete, the results of which you can see at the end of the day. and i think you can make plenty good money in either field - trades pay a good hourly wage, and after a while you can always run your own crew, open your own shop, etc etc if you feel like your paycheck isn't big enough.

that said, i'm guessing right now isn't the right time to make this change - like others have said, jobs are a bit thin on the ground right now, and the people with experience and connections will get those few jobs that are available.

take a night class, start a project for fun (fix up an old sports car or something, perhaps you can rent/borrow garage space?) then in a few years, when the economy picks up, make the change if you still feel like it's what you want to do.
posted by messiahwannabe at 9:26 PM on May 7, 2010

Don't become a motorcycle mechanic. The pay sucks and most of the business owners behave like low rent used car dealers. I say this from experience. I worked in the industry for almost a decade at shops up and down the east coast. There are good jobs in the industry, but wrenching isn't one of them.

If you decide to go the mechanic route, aviation pays the best, requires the highest attention to detail, requires the least actual repair and diagnostics and the most maintenance.
posted by thekiltedwonder at 12:54 AM on May 8, 2010

I'm tired of constantly having to learn new technologies.

This is a big hurdle to overcome. Being a mechanic involves being immersed in technology that you haven't seen before. In addition to all of the old vehicles you may not have encountered before, manufacturers can often make big changes year to year, adding mountains to the pile of stuff you need to learn. Sure, all the principles stay the same, but every make has a different way of doing stuff and they have their own design vocabulary that you need to familiarize yourself with.
Just a couple weeks ago, I went though a fifty-hour training course on hybrid vehicles, for example. And when I worked for a dealership, I put in four to seven days of training about every month and a half.
So, learning new technologies is kind of your job description as a mechanic.
posted by Jon-o at 4:12 AM on May 8, 2010

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