Mario Mirabal wears tributes to his trade prominently on his skin. The tattoo of a wrench on the inside of one forearm is labeled "Horsepower.'' The wrench on the other celebrates "Torque.'' When it comes to auto mechanics, he lives what he teaches: "This is a career that is truly for the passionate. You've got to come in this and love cars.'' A mechanic for 11 years, the 29-year-old Mirabal teaches the new auto repair course for Hillsborough Community College. Administrators added the course after hearing from Tampa Bay area car dealers who said they had trouble finding and keeping competent young mechanics.
Built with the help of a matching federal Economic Development Administration grant, the college's new $3.2 million auto service center lab opened in January with the latest in computer diagnostics equipment. The 17 students in the first class started in August, sharing space in the auto body repair lab until their new building near 56th Street and Columbus Drive was ready. They come from all over the county — Westchase, South Tampa, Riverview.
They'll enter the workforce in an era when the term mechanic no longer fits, in Mirabal's view. More and more, they're called technicians.
"Most of the stuff we do is really technical now," he says. "Most of the troubleshooting is all technical — a lot of stuff with voltmeters and oscilloscopes and scan tools.''
He laughs at the notion held initially by some students who figured computers would make the work a breeze. They would simply fix what the computer told them to fix. "It doesn't say to fix anything,'' Mirabal says. It just points out a trouble area and it's up to the technician to pinpoint the problem.
These days, mechanics unschooled in modern technology would be limited in what work they could do, he says. They could still take care of certain suspension problems and brakes. "But if it comes to anything that has to do with engine performance or drivability or emissions or even air-conditioning, probably not.''
Student John Partin, a 63-year-old retired government historian, finds it a lot to learn.
"It's a lot more theoretical than I had imagined originally — a lot of physics. Coming from a liberal arts background, it's a little difficult sometimes.''
Partin is the rare student who isn't looking for a career. He's thinking of taking up auto racing, he says, and wants to be able to do his own repairs. He found out about the course while taking the auto body repair class, which has been a staple of the HCC workforce curriculum for 10 years.
Student Jeremy Paz has always wanted to be a mechanic. It's the right career for two reasons, he says: He loves cars and he can't imagine sitting at a desk all the time. "I'm not sure if it's ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) or what,'' he says, but he would just get too bored. "My hands have to be dirty.''
The 20-year-old Army National Guard soldier serves as a mechanic while on duty and loves the detective work. "It's nice because there are so many different problems that you're always wondering, 'What could be wrong?' ''
While workers in other fields face layoffs in this bleak economy, the demand for well-trained engine technicians is high, says the dean.
The shortage is so great in the Tampa Bay area that car dealers appealed to HCC administrators to add the course, says Jack Evans, an academic dean who oversees the college's workforce programs. "They said, 'We are desperate; we cannot get younger mechanics. We hire people off the street, it kind of looks good, and two months later they've vanished on us.' ''
At HCC, Evans says, educators stress the need for a strong work ethic, reminding students that their reputation for reliability will follow them through their careers.
If they're good at their jobs, they can make a good living. While experienced mechanics may earn $18 to $20 per hour, they generally work on a flat rate for each job, Evans explains. So if the work manual lists a certain repair as a five-hour job, a good mechanic could fix it in maybe two hours — and still be paid for five. (And a slow mechanic who takes longer is still paid for five hours.) So, over the course of the year, Evans notes, that efficient mechanic could earn $80,000 or $90,000 or more.
Mirabal says a good mechanic should be making about $60,000 within the first six years on the job. He advises his students to specialize, pick a brand and really become an expert on that kind of car, and they will be able to work faster and make more money. The teacher is convinced that students who want a job will be able to find one.
"If you're good and skilled at your job and you're qualified, there's no reason anybody shouldn't hire you.''