Probing car brains in Tampa Bay

Times Correspondent

Mario Mirabal thought he was in trouble when his high school chemistry teacher caught him reading an automobile magazine in class and had him step into the hall with him.

“I’m like, I’m going to get it now,’’ Mirabal recalled.

But his teacher told him about the automotive course his friend taught at Gaither High School, and soon Mirabal found himself having a lot more fun than he did in chemistry class. By his junior year, he was working part-time at a Toyota dealership in New Port Richey.

Mirabal, 39, born in Puerto Rico and raised in Tampa, now teaches automotive repair courses at Hillsborough Community College. He talked with the Tampa Bay Times about fixing 21st century cars and how the demand for top electrical technicians and general service mechanics has skyrocketed.

How has car repair changed over the years?

Just about everything is computer controlled. … You still need mechanical knowledge – we’re still fixing engines. … But a lot of what today’s technicians’ jobs are is reprogramming and troubleshooting electrical faults. And then maintenance, obviously, the regular maintenance.

So there’s an emphasis on electrical?

The way our program is structured, everything is usually a five-week class. The only classes that are 10 weeks is electrical and engine performance, which is basically what I call “electrical 2,’’ because it focuses on the electrical portion that runs the engine.

They sound complicated.

It’s definitely not for the faint of heart. It’s not what the students think it is when they come in. A lot of students will come in and assume that they hook up a scan tool, they get a trouble code and then they just replace what it says. I show them multiple times over and over again how I can cause a trouble code and it has nothing to do with replacing the component.

So the scan tools don’t tell you the problem?

They’ll point out an area, but they won’t tell you exactly what it is. So it’s your job to figure that part out.

Mario Mirabal, center, in red, shows students Joseph Roan, left, Christopher Lucian and Jerome Powell Jr. how to operate a 3D alignment rack at the Hillsborough Community College workshop on E. Columbus Drive in 2011.
Mario Mirabal, center, in red, shows students Joseph Roan, left, Christopher Lucian and Jerome Powell Jr. how to operate a 3D alignment rack at the Hillsborough Community College workshop on E. Columbus Drive in 2011. [ WALLACE, DANIEL | St. Petersburg Times ]

What are the job opportunities?

This year has been the most insane year I’ve ever had in this field. I’ve been teaching for 10 years and the last four or five years I’ve had 100 percent employment rates with graduates. … Because of COVID, we’ve halved our enrollment. So I have half the number of students but I feel like I have three times the number of job openings. I have a call every week, and it’s like, “Hey, I need three guys’’ or “I need four guys.’’ I say, “All my guys are already employed. I don’t have any more people for you.” …

If you drive down I-4, you can see there’s a big sign in front of Gator Ford. It says, “5,000 sign-on bonus’’ for technicians. They’re offering a lot of money and a lot of incentives to try and get people through the door.

How much can the top electrical specialists earn?

You can make a whole lot of money. I’d say… master technicians, or master diagnostic technicians, are making $32 to $37 an hour. That’s their hourly rate. Obviously, they’re flat-rate technicians so they can still make more than 40 hours (of pay) in a 40-hour week.

And general service technicians who do the mechanical work?

The pay’s going up, obviously, to stay competitive. When I first started here… I’d say that an entry level job as a general service technician, they were usually starting you at $11 or $12 dollars an hour. Now we’re looking more like $16 or $17, so it’s getting better.

How did you get interested in this?

I worked at McDonald’s, I bought my first car, and it was making this weird noise. My stepfather (a mechanic) tells me to check the oil. So I take the oil cap off and look inside, and I go, “Looks pretty oily to me’’ (laughs). I didn’t even know how to check the oil level on my car.

And then the brakes started grinding one time, and it grinded to the point where I lost the front brakes because the brake pad flew out of the caliper and I lost all my brake fluid. It was a scary situation. My stepfather was so furious with me. He said, “You’re just destroying this car left and right. I’m going to make you fix it so that you understand what’s involved and what you’re doing to the car.”

So he made me fix those brakes. … I said, this is kind of cool, man. And then I just kind of got more into it after that.

How many women take the class?

I’d say out of a group of 28 students, two of them are female on average.

The auto repair training takes 18 months, you say.

I teach everybody the same… I said this program is made to be a career program. This is to teach you how to get a job, how to get a career. And so they wear uniforms. They’ve got to punch in, they’ve got to punch out. … They get work orders. They get homework.

We take them through every single system on an automobile. So the very first class they take… it’s basically like an intro to automotive. So we do safety. We do tools. This is what I tell people: “You don’t even have to know how to use a screwdriver. We’ll help you out with that.’’ …

We take them through everything and then we do maintenance. … By the end of that course they should know how to use tools. They should know how to write up a repair order and change oil and tires.

And then we’ll move them into brakes. They’ll go through the entire brake system. And then we do engine repair. … We break down the entire engine. We measure every single portion of the engine. We order parts for the engine, put new parts into the engine and reassemble it. That’s their project for that class.

We still do automatic and manual transmission rebuilding in here, too, even though manual transmission’s kind of like, where can you find one of those now? …

I tell students, “Manual still exists, so if you know somebody with a manual, get used to driving it. Because there’s nothing worse than getting a service ticket and then walking out to the parking lot and getting in the car and going, “Wait, how do I drive this?” And having to go back inside and ask your manager or somebody else to move the car for you.

For more information, go to Hccfl.edu/academics/subjects/transportation

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