Looking for a career in the field of historic vehicle restoration? Employers are hiring if you have the skills. Here’s the inside scoop on the fields where demand for qualified candidates has outpaced the supply, plus predictions on what the future job market might hold.
It’s no secret that historic vehicle enthusiasts are an aging demographic. The same holds true for the skilled craftsmen who’ve made a career out of preserving and refurbishing these valuable treasures of the past. This poses a problem for the nation’s only four-year college offering bachelors degrees in automotive restoration—McPherson College in Kansas.
“People in the field are retiring,” says Brian Martin, Director of Automotive Restoration Development, “and that’s creating a real need for skilled individuals. But these days you do have to be able to do more than simply know how to turn a wrench.”
Roughly 115 students are currently enrolled in McPherson’s College of Automotive Restoration. Only around 30 students graduate from the program every year and, according to Martin, it’s far from enough.
“We’re actually looking into expanding the program,” he says. “The biggest specialized skills in demand right now are people talented in woodworking and trim, panel fabrication, and interior work. But we’re also getting more calls from private collectors and museums looking for people with skills and training that go beyond the technical—specifically, they’re looking for professionals who can also run a business.”
Blue Collar Skills, White Collar World
According to Martin, car museums throughout America have figured out it takes more than rows and rows of impeccably restored vehicles to keep visitors parading through their doors. Likewise, private collectors are looking for a career-minded person who can not only rebuild an engine but also make a business plan purr. Both careers require a new sort of training, one that places equal emphasis on blue-collar mechanics and white-collar business skills.
“Private collectors are looking for someone who is competent in every facet of restoration and who can also communicate how the process works,” says Martin. “Museums have figured out that special events are a major moneymaker. They’re looking for someone who can work on vehicles, oversee the work of others, and also organize and promote special events for the public. Both careers take leadership, creativity, and the ability to communicate—someone as skilled in marketing and public relations as they are passionate when it comes to working on and talking about cars.”
Popular degrees at McPherson are programs in historic auto technology, auto restoration management, auto communications, auto restoration design, auto restoration technology, and motorcycle restoration, a recently- created program.
All programs offer students a broad practical and academic background, which provides traditional training in “blue collar” restoration complimented by more white-collar schooling in communications and business management.
In the restoration industry, says Martin, employers don’t have time for on-the-job training and are looking for experience right out of the gate. They want career-minded people who are fully versed in all aspects of mechanical rebuilding and troubleshooting (engine, transmission, tuning, suspension, fuel delivery, etc), yet are equally competent at more mundane office tasks such as organizing and running a budget and managing other employees.
While careers in this highly-specialized field are not the type that regularly pop up on job-hunting websites such as Monster and CareerBuilder.com, Martin says calls from employers are constant. McPherson answers the demand by placing students in internships with national museums and restoration shops. In 2011, almost 50 percent of students participated in a summer internship program and 71 percent had a job waiting for them upon graduation.
In collector circles, interest in motorcycle restoration remains steady. There are street rod and muscle car enthusiasts and a growing wave of people passionate about old pickups and military vehicles. Those with the best chance of finding a great job need to be comfortable working on any make or model vehicle. But there’s a reason McPherson students mostly practice their trade on Pre-war vehicles, says Martin.
“Pre-war cars and the big name classics have held their own when it comes to value. They haven’t seen the bubble that muscle cars have in past years. And I don’t see the value in the old classics diminishing anytime soon.”
As long as there are old vehicles and people who cherish them, the need for people who can preserve and make these vehicles run will remain. Demand is there and still very strong and that, according Martin, means jobs in the field of restoration will be there for many years to come.
For more information on McPherson College of Automotive Restoration programs, check out www.mcpherson.edu/academics/autorestoration.php.