In 2011, Justin Knoble had 12 years of retail experience. But his real passion was cars.

“I like fast cars and making them faster, like most guys that get into mechanics,” said Knoble, 36, of Baraboo.

Starting when he was 18, he and his friends repaired cars in their garages and driveways. Around that time, Knoble bought a black 1993 Ford Thunderbird. Soon, he was scouting out cars in classified ads and by word of mouth from friends and co-workers. He routinely bought and repaired his finds, drove them for awhile, then sold them.

Then, Knoble decided it was time for a change. The retail manager transformed his hobby into a career in a high-tech industry that’s in need of workers.

Constant demand makes automotive repair a reliable field of employment.

There are openings with independent mechanics and dealerships, business and government fleets, as well as recreational vehicles and agricultural machinery. Technology, like onboard computer software and hybrid and electric vehicles, changes with each year’s models, keeping skilled mechanics on their toes.

In 2016, there were 3,309 jobs related to transportation technician careers within the Madison Area Technical College (MATC) District, according to data commissioned by MATC from Economic Modeling Specialists, Inc.

The district includes most of Columbia, Dane, Jefferson, Marquette and Sauk counties, as well as specific school districts in Adams, Dodge, Green, Iowa, Juneau, Richland and Rock counties.

Positions include automotive body repair person, automotive service technicians, truck and diesel equipment technicians and motorcycle and motorboat mechanics. Dane County auto technician jobs are expected to grow 6.7 percent from 2016 to 2021.

A lack of skilled employees to fill vocational positions is a statewide problem in many trades.

For two years, Knoble worked third shift at Wal-Mart and attended classes at MATC by day. He graduated in 2013 with a two-year technical diploma from MATC’s automotive technician program, one of two automotive programs the college offers. Both provide classroom and lab courses, including electrical and electronics systems, braking and engine rebuilding, as well as customer relations and hybrid and alternative vehicles.

MATC’s two-year technical automotive technician diploma program is tailored to students who want hands-on experience to develop the skills necessary to enter and work in the field.

The college also offers a comprehensive associate’s degree in automotive mechanical systems, an applied science. The transfer-ready degree includes 20 credits of general education courses, like written communication and economics. It’s designed for students seeking a bachelor’s degree in a field such as mechanical engineering.

Now Knoble is a field service manager with Crown Lift Trucks in Madison, part of the international Crown Equipment Corp. The company supplies and services forklifts used in grocery stores and warehouses. He began as a field service technician, traveling to area businesses and performing maintenance on their equipment while helping them manage their fleets. In his managerial role, he supervises field technicians and recruits for Crown.

‘Changes so rapidly’

The best automotive technicians are committed to lifelong learning, Knoble said.

“You need to be able to constantly learn. The automotive industry changes so rapidly with technology,” he said.

Efficiency, troubleshooting and problem-solving to diagnose problems are other paramount skills.

Responsibility is a key trait of a good automotive technician. One missed detail can mean the difference between life and death.

Auto technicians need a good driving record. Insurance restrictions bar many shops from employing people with two moving violations.

Knoble said the diagnostic skills he’s developed professionally have changed his approach to life.

“With some time and experience, you feel like there’s nothing you can’t fix, like there’s no challenge that’s too big because no matter what you face, you take a look at systematically and break it down and figure out what needs to happen to fix that problem,” Knoble said.

“Shifting Careers” is an occasional series about occupations with good job prospects for those considering a change. To see other installments, go to go.madison.com/shift.

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