Trucks and trains may move the bulk of our goods, but for many service members hanging up their uniforms, the idea of a "transportation" sector hearkens back to that first set of wheels, and a job in transportation means a job in the automotive sector.

"Ever since I was a little kid, I always had a passion for automobiles — I played with Transformers, remote-control cars, bicycles, anything with wheels that would go fast," former Navy Lt. Martin Woomer said.

As a Navy sonar technician, he didn’t get much chance to indulge that interest. Today, as a logistics professional with Ford, Woomer, who separated in 2014, is surrounded by vroom.

The auto industry is broad, with training opportunities that range from certification for mechanics to advanced degrees for executives. For former service members looking to get in at ground level, there are a number of ways to get up to speed.

Shifting Gears Under the Hood 1

Spc. Javier Mendoza works under the hood of a GM vehicle at the Raytheon and GM training center at Fort Hood, Texas. Mendoza is a newly GM-certified automotive technician.
Photo Credit: Raytheon
Some will find the most direct route through a joint program offered by Raytheon, the Army and General Motors: Shifting Gears, an effort launched in the summer of 2014 that has trained nearly 120 former soldiers. The 12-week program at Fort Hood, Texas, includes 480 hours of classroom, online and hands-on technical training, with graduates ready to go to work as GM mechanics.

Shifting Gears students typically have some experience with wheeled vehicles as part of their military occupational specialties.

"They are already coming to the program with mechanical skills; they have the sense of what it means to work in a shop with tools, to work with diagnostic skills," said Alan Blascak, program manager for Raytheon’s GM accounts.

"Automotive vehicles have 100 computers on them, miles of wires and all sorts of electronic systems, and we train them extensively on how all those systems work independently and how they work together," he said.

Other programs also strive to bring veterans into the field. The Automotive Training Center in Exton, Pennsylvania, for example, participates in a national effort to award $1,000 toward career education for military personnel, active or veteran, attending a career college.

One advantage to a manufacturer-sponsored program like Shifting Gears, besides its close ties to the military, is the student’s confidence that the credential will mean something later on.

The auto industry is rife with certifications, with Automotive Service Excellence being the most widely recognized, and while certification may be a good starting point, many in the industry say further education will help you advance faster.

One way to be sure of getting your money’s worth is to pursue training through a college or university. Community colleges, in particular, offer training to get people started on the mechanic track.

Dave Macholz is an assistant professor of automotive technology at Suffolk County Community College in Selden, New York, where some 200 students each year study for the associate degree in automotive tech, with the aim of working in car dealerships or automotive repair shops at entry-level salaries that typically run from $38,000 to $65,000.

As with instructors at most college-based automotive programs, Macholz teaches curricula from specific vendors, including Toyota and Honda. This brand-specific training has become increasingly important as cars have become less "mechanical" and more dependent on electrical systems.

How do you pick a brand? That mostly comes down to personal preference.

"Do you like a specific brand of car? Maybe someone likes a Ford Mustang or a Ford truck, and a Toyota just might not feel right," Macholz said. "But you also want to think about which program will give you the most for the money. You’re not going to gain skills by sitting in a classroom. You want a program where you are working on cars every day."

In weighing the training options for work in the auto industry, Keith McWilliams can legitimately say he has seen the equation from all sides.

A former Army sergeant first class with experience in field artillery, McWilliams graduated from the auto technology program at MassBay Community College in 2013. He had already worked in a car dealership, but realized "I could make a better career for myself if I could get more professional training," he said. At MassBay, he learned about GM systems, from steering and suspension to engines and transmission.

His new training landed him a better job at twice the pay, and from there he jumped into his current position, teaching automotive tech at MassBay’s Ashland Technology Center. His initial training cost about $16,000, which he said was a deal, considering where it has landed him.

He recommends formal training for anyone looking to get into this increasingly sophisticated sector of the transportation industry. "The technology is changing daily with the advancements we’re making in the vehicles, in terms of safety and also in terms of comfort and convenience. It’s not the days of nuts and bolts. We do a lot of work with computers and electrical meters," he said.

He also likes the fact that work in this field feels so much like life in the military. "You work with a handful of other guys doing the same thing as you. There’s great camaraderie, we all help each other out, and at the same time you are your own boss. You’re given a vehicle and it’s up to you to get the job done," he said.

For Woomer, a former Navy nuclear submarine officer, the auto industry has less to do with electrical systems and more to do with the mechanics of business. As an executive with Ford, he ensures suppliers are ready with the coolers, fans, pumps and valves that go into automobiles as they moves down the assembly line.

Far from the mechanic’s associate degree, he took a bachelor’s in economics while at the Naval Academy, then earned a master’s degree in engineering management from Old Dominion University. "It’s half MBA, half industrial engineering, so it could help me in my daily job as a naval officer as well as having a variety of applications in the civilian marketplace," he said.

As a management-level organizer, he has fingers in a lot of pies, working with many of Ford’s 1,200 top-tier suppliers nationwide. "It’s very fluid as a management position. We’re always designing new vehicles and updating features and meeting new regulatory requirements. It’s very fast paced," he said.

Mere hard work at the leadership level won’t take you to the executive high ground. Woomer came to his position with many degrees, and those credentials are necessary to advance in management slots, as is true in most of corporate America.

But regardless of your specific goals, the basic rule applies when entering the automotive industry: Get the training you need to succeed, at whatever level you’re aiming for.