Inside the Life of an Auto Body Technician Earning $500 a Week
"I work this hard so one day I can be a master mechanic and hopefully run my own shop."
Auto body technician Justyn Acosta carefully removes masking tape from a BMW after applying a fresh coat of paint. Photo courtesy of Justyn Acosta
Every day at 7AM Justyn Acosta leaves his home in the Bronx to get to Sunny’s Autobody, where the 22-year-old works as an auto body technician, but does much more than fix fender benders. “I’m the floor manager, the errand boy, and the boss’s right hand,” he says.
On a regular day at the shop, you can find him fixing dents, sanding and repairing bumpers, and even fixing radiators. Once he had to sand and repaint the entire exterior of a guy’s truck after an ex-girlfriend made sure she covered the entire truck with scratches. Today he’ll start working on a 2016 Acura ILX with a quarter panel that got damaged after colliding with another car.
What it takes to get hired as an auto body technician
“I’ve always liked cars so I went to college to learn how to fix them,” said Acosta, who received an associate’s degree in auto body technology and has taken additional classes toward a bachelor's degree. He received his inspector’s license in college and became I-Car certified in collision repair and refinishing.
Acosta didn’t know anything about fixing cars growing up. But he recalls seeing the amount of money his family would invest in maintaining theirs. “I remember thinking, if I knew how to fix that bumper or do that oil change, I could just do it for them myself,” he said. That’s when he decided to learn how and make car repair his career.
He bought a 2000 Honda Civic in college for $1,300 that was completely moldy from sitting in a parking lot for months. He gutted the car, replaced the engine, suspension, the wheels, and even repainted the front and rear bumpers.
The summer after his freshman year in college, a family friend gave Acosta his first job at a shop. He recalls the long hours and sweltering heat in the summer sun, but his favorite part was being able to take a car apart and put it back together. “You have all these individual Lego pieces and on their own, they’re not much to look at. But my favorite part is being able to take those individual pieces and build something.”
A shortage of skilled technicians
Aspiring mechanics and technicians aren’t likely to have a hard time finding a job because of the current shortage of workers. While the biggest shortage is for mechanics skilled in repairing highly-specialized automotive systems, “there is a tremendous shortage in all of the skilled trades. Especially in the automotive industry,” said Gilbert Wistrup, an automotive associate professor at the State University of New York in Morrisville. “I get an average of two calls or emails weekly from shop owners looking for technicians.”
You don’t need a degree to be an auto body technician, but Acosta says he wouldn’t be very good at doing his job if he didn’t have any special training, which also included courses in mechanics. “They taught us about electrical systems and I had to take courses in chassis which has to do with the internal framework of a car,” Acosta said. “A guy came in and wanted his front struts replaced and that's something you would bring to a mechanic but because I knew how to do it, I did it.”
Acosta earns $500 weekly, which works out to $26,000 per year. His family and friends tell him he could make more—the average auto body technician makes $40,580 per year, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data—but he says he doesn’t mind the relatively low pay since he’s still learning the ropes. He started working at Sunny’s in May after leaving college and still lives with his parents.
He believes all the extra work he does will benefit him in the long-run. “I’m always the first person to get to work and most days I’m the last one to leave but I work this hard so one day I can be a master mechanic and hopefully run my own shop."
Technology is making auto repair harder
While the shop where Acosta works fixes scratches and dents, does paint jobs, and handles windshield replacements, the rise of computerization in automotive systems means they can’t do some repairs. For example, when a Mercedes with an air bag suspension was brought in, the sensor keeping the air bags inflated need to be replaced, and a computer had to be connected to the car to do it. Sunny’s didn't have the right equipment, so they had to call someone in to do it for them.
“More and more automotive functions are controlled by a computer or module,” said Wistrup. “This makes the job of the automotive mechanical or collision technician more difficult.” Acosta says he is extra careful when repairing hybrids, which have an orange cable on the main battery pack. If you don’t disconnect it while you're working on the car, you could get electrocuted.
But some work just takes old-fashioned mechanic’s skills. Earlier this week, for example, “I spent the whole day replacing an engine, which is something that is supposed to be brought to a mechanic, but I’ve replaced engines before, including the engine on my own car,” he said.
For anyone looking to get into auto repair, Acosta urges them to practice patience and not allow their inexperience to discourage them. “Take your time when fixing a car. If you rush you might mess up.” He adds, “if you want to get into body work but you don’t know anything, don’t let that stop you because this industry is booming.”