Phil Ruhl had always enjoyed repairing and maintaining the tractors and vehicles on his parents' farm, so when he joined the U.S. Navy, he decided to be an aircraft technician. He worked his way up to leading a team of mechanics, and upon returning to civilian life, decided to work as an automotive mechanic.
Phil regularly attends classes to keep his certifications up to date and to learn more about fixing cars in a rapidly evolving environment. He is now a certified Master Technician for Gaithersburg Mazda, in Maryland. Phil enjoys tinkering with his Mazda RX-7s and recreational high-speed driving (don't worry - it's on a closed course!).
Please tell us about your career. How did you decide to become an automotive mechanic?
The love of working on cars has inspired me to take a job as a mechanic. I was exposed to the field early on, as a farmer in my youth. We had to repair and maintain our farm equipment as efficiently and rapidly as possible, and I enjoyed the challenge. It made me realize that working as a mechanic was right for me.
I also had extensive experience with mechanical service as a technician in the Navy. I worked on aircraft engines, clearing the planes for service and also running teams of mechanics. I was again confronted with the daily challenge of working on jets and turbo props in a more proficient manner, and also working within a team structure.
After the Navy, I pursued a job as an automotive technician, and have been one ever since. For the past several years I have worked at Gaithersburg Mazda in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
What do you enjoy most about your job and about the field in general?
The job is a challenge of figuring out what is wrong with the car and making effective repairs. The field in general is rapidly changing in all areas, and I enjoy keeping up with the latest innovations and staying on top of the field.
What are some of your favorite projects that you've worked on? Why are these particular favorites?
Recently a friend and I restored and rebuilt a 1983 Mazda RX7 as a fun project. This included complete overhaul of the engine and transmission, and suspension work done with performance equipment. As a personal project, I have a street-prepped RX7 which I love to drive and work on.
What are some of your professional and/or personal goals for the future?
One of my personal goals is to keep up with rapidly changing technology in the automotive field. Professionally, I would like to achieve enough expertise to go to the Mazda Master Tech competition in California.
Please tell us a little about your latest passion, racing! How does it relate to your field, and why do you like it?
It is actually called "high-speed recreational driving." It is my energy release which requires my full attention and skill of driving. It also shows me how stress can break a car's parts and how to find solutions to make effective repairs.
On an average day, what are some of the things you might do?
I am in a supervisor position, responsible for my team's work and I'm the go-between person. I personally diagnose and oversee all repairs to ensure quality work is being done. When needed, I talk to customers for their particular needs and concerns. Of course, meetings and paperwork also come with the job.
What does your title of Master Technician mean? How did you get it? What are some of the other certifications mechanics can get?
Master Technicians have demonstrated skill and knowledge required for the field. One must pass the ASE (National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, http://www.asecert.org/) tests to be a Mazda Master Technician, and in order to pass the test, one must complete specialized schooling as well as job experience. I am required to pass certain specialized tests and maintain my certifications through ASE.
Editor's note: ASE certification is available in eight areas, including engine repair, brake systems, and more. To gain each certification, the mechanic must have two years of experience and pass a written exam. The exams are not easy; about 1 in 3 test-takers fail a given test. To be certified as a Master Automotive Mechanic, the technician must be certified in all eight ASE areas, and they must retake each exam at least once every five years to stay certified. Although ASE certification is voluntary, it is the standard credential for technicians. Shops can also be ASE certified by meeting certain standards, including employing at least one ASE-certified technician.
How do mechanics use computers? Did you have to take special classes or gain certifications to use these programs?
Mechanics use computers for diagnostics. We use the Internet to communicate with the manufacturer or whatever tech support is being used. I had to take specialized classes to learn about the computer system; the one we use at work is unique and specialized for Mazda.
You work for a large automotive manufacturer, Mazda (http://www.mazda.com/). How do you think that is different from, say, a small independently-operated garage?
As a Mazda technician, I have corporate backing in helping to diagnose complicated problems and issues using up-to-date technology. The independent worker may have to find different avenues to access information, since they do not have the large company database and network. Also, most independent technicians work on a large variety of vehicles, both foreign and domestics, versus focusing on a dedicated model.
What are the most challenging aspects of your job?
Working with the different skill levels of my coworkers. Also, I must keep the CSI (Customer Service Satisfaction Index) standards that are expected by our company.
Please tell us about your education as it relates to your field, including any continuing education courses you take.
I have had formal training, i.e. the Navy, Mazda Corporation, college courses and on-the-job training. Once or twice a year I attend classes for about a week at a training facility. These classes introduce me to the latest technology as it rapidly changes from year to year. We learn new diagnostic techniques with these classes including lab work with actual models. We can bench test both good and bad equipment to see how it affects the system. We are scored on our performance. It is a very good idea to take these classes as they increase my knowledge and skill level.
What types of programs/schools are there for those interested in becoming automotive technicians?
College and automotive trade schools are the best bets. This includes high school "shop" programs that can instill the enthusiasm to become a technician in the future.
Editor's note: Today, many high schools, trade and tech schools, and community colleges offer quality programs in automotive technology. Completing one of these programs is recommended by industry experts. Technical and trade schools typically offer intensive training programs that last 6 months to a year. Community college programs are two years long, but students get a wider background in basic skills and knowledge and receive an associate's degree. These programs may include classes in customer service, stress management, and other skills a mechanic will find useful.
Increasingly, automobile manufacturers and dealers sponsor 2-year associate's degree programs at postsecondary schools around the country. These accredited programs usually offer alternating periods of attending classes full-time and working for the under an experienced technician at the sponsoring dealership.
What are some of the specialties in this field?
General automotive technician, engine overhaul specialist, diagnostic technician (i.e. trend), transmission specialist, new hybrid specialist, diesel repair technician, the list goes on.
Editor's note: There are several specialties in automotive service, with more opening up as cars change. Transmission technicians work on transmissions specifically. They have specialized training in the field. Tune-up technicians work on engines to improve performance (replacing valves, spark plugs, ignition timing, etc.). Air-conditioning repairers specialized in air conditioning maintenance, repair and replacement/installation. They also handle the disposal of refrigerants. Front-end mechanics align and balance wheels and repair suspensions. Brake mechanics work on brake systems.
What do you think some of the attributes of a good mechanic are? For example, do they need to be creative, or more logical? Are communication skills important? Are there some people with a natural "talent" for the work?
A logical, open mind is a necessity with this field. There must be a willingness to learn how to resolve problems, even with unconventional methods. Communication skills are mandatory. A positive attitude is essential.
How is the job market evolving - what do you think it will be like in five years? Specifically, I know that many automobile factory workers lost their jobs in the past decades due to mechanization of plants - basically, human jobs were replaced by machines. Do you think something like that could happen to automotive service?
The job market is evolving towards maintenance-free vehicles as much as possible. I do not use robotics in my job and do not foresee this technology replacing the human factor within 5 to 10 years.
What are some of the best and the biggest companies to work for? What should new graduates look for in a company?
What are some of the trends you see emerging in your field that could help today's students prepare for employment?
The trends that are emerging require working knowledge of computers and demand good computer skills. Understanding how computers communicate with each other is essential. Also, a mechanical understanding is necessary.
How has the popularity of the Internet affected automotive service? For example, do you have more customers trying to self-diagnose their car problems based on something they read online? Do you use email to communicate with friends about car stuff?
Yes, this happens all the time which is a very irritating problem for the professional mechanic. Customer self-diagnosis usually does not fix cars and can cause further problems. I don't normally email too much about car things unless it is about car racing or to chat.
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 enter and succeed in your field?
It is always a challenge and ever-changing from day to day. I am self motivated to be the best I can be. I feel this is a plus for anyone considering this field.