Career Guide for Small Engine Mechanics

Small engines exist in all sorts of power equipment and small transportation vehicles such as motorcycles and powerboats. A small engine mechanic repairs and services small engines.

In this free career guide, you will learn how to become a successful small engine mechanic.

Small Engine Mechanic Summary

  • Job prospects should be excellent for people who complete formal training programs.
  • Average job growth is expected.
  • Use of motorcycles, motorboats, and outdoor power equipment is seasonal in many areas, so mechanics may service other types of equipment or work reduced hours in the winter.

Working as a Small Engine Mechanic

Small engine mechanics repair and service power equipment ranging from jet skis to chainsaws. Mechanics usually specialize in the service and repair of one type of equipment, such as motorcycles, motorboats, and outdoor power equipment, although they may work on closely related products.

When a piece of equipment breaks down, mechanics use various techniques to diagnose the source and extent of the problem. The mark of a skilled mechanic is the ability to diagnose mechanical, fuel, and electrical problems and to make repairs quickly. Quick and accurate diagnosis requires problem-solving ability and a thorough knowledge of the equipment’s operation.

Some jobs require minor adjustments or the replacement of a single item, but a complete engine overhaul could require hours to disassemble the engine and replace worn valves, pistons, bearings, and other internal parts. Some highly skilled mechanics use specialized components and the latest computerized equipment to customize and tune motorcycles and motorboats for racing.

Hand tools are the most important work-related possessions of mechanics. Small engine mechanics use wrenches, pliers, and screwdrivers on a regular basis. Mechanics usually provide their own tools, although employers will furnish expensive power tools, computerized engine analyzers, and other diagnostic equipment. Computerized engine analyzers, compression gauges, ammeters and voltmeters, and other testing devices help mechanics locate faulty parts and tune engines. This equipment provides a systematic performance report of various components to compare against normal ratings. After pinpointing the problem, the mechanic makes the needed adjustments, repairs, or replacements.

Small engines also require periodic service to minimize the chance of breakdowns and to keep them operating at peak performance. During routine maintenance, mechanics follow a checklist that includes the inspection and cleaning of brakes, electrical systems, fuel injection systems, plugs, carburetors, and other parts. Following inspection, mechanics usually repair or adjust parts that do not work properly or replace unfixable parts.

Motorcycle mechanics specialize in the repair and overhaul of motorcycles, motor scooters, mopeds, dirt bikes, and all-terrain vehicles. Besides repairing engines, they may work on transmissions, brakes, and ignition systems and make minor body repairs. Mechanics often service just a few makes and models of motorcycles because most work for dealers that service only the products they sell.

Motorboat mechanics and marine equipment mechanics repair and adjust the electrical and mechanical equipment of inboard and outboard boat engines. Most small boats have portable outboard engines that are removed and brought into the repair shop. Larger craft, such as cabin cruisers and commercial fishing boats, are powered by diesel or gasoline inboard or inboard-outboard engines, which are removed only for major overhauls. Most of these repairs, therefore, are performed at docks or marinas. Motorboat mechanics also may work on propellers, steering mechanisms, marine plumbing, and other boat equipment.

Outdoor power equipment and other small engine mechanics service and repair outdoor power equipment such as lawnmowers, garden tractors, edge trimmers, and chain saws. They also may occasionally work on portable generators and go-carts. In addition, small engine mechanics in certain parts of the country may work on snowblowers and snowmobiles, but demand for this type of repair is both seasonal and regional.

Work environment. Small engine mechanics usually work in repair shops that are well lighted and ventilated but are sometimes noisy when engines are tested. Motorboat mechanics may work outdoors in poor weather conditions when making repairs aboard boats. They may also work in cramped or awkward positions to reach a boat’s engine. Outdoor power equipment mechanics face similar conditions when they need to make on-site repairs.

During the winter months in the northern United States, mechanics may work fewer than 40 hours a week because the amount of repair and service work declines when lawnmowers, motorboats, and motorcycles are not in use. Many mechanics work full time only during the busy spring and summer seasons. However, they often schedule time-consuming engine overhauls or work on snowmobiles and snowblowers during winter downtime. Mechanics may work considerably more than 40 hours a week when demand is strong.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Due to the increasing complexity of motorcycles and motorboats, employers prefer to hire mechanics who have graduated from formal training programs. However, because the number of these specialized postsecondary programs is limited, most mechanics still learn their skills on the job or while working in related occupations.

Education and training. Employers prefer to hire high school graduates for trainee mechanic positions, but many will accept applicants with less education if they possess adequate reading, writing, and math skills. Helpful high school courses include small engine repair, automobile mechanics, science, and business math. Many equipment dealers employ high school students part time and during the summer to help assemble new equipment and perform minor repairs.

Once employed, trainees learn routine service tasks under the guidance of experienced mechanics by replacing ignition points and spark plugs or by taking apart, assembling, and testing new equipment. As they gain experience and proficiency, trainees progress to more difficult tasks, such as advanced computerized diagnosis and engine overhauls. Anywhere from several months to 3 years of on-the-job training may be necessary before a novice worker becomes competent in all aspects of the repair of motorcycle and motorboat engines. Repair of outdoor equipment, because of fewer moving parts, requires less on-the-job training.

A growing number of motorcycle and marine equipment mechanics graduate from formal motorcycle and motorboat postsecondary programs. Employers prefer to hire these workers for their advanced knowledge of small engine repair. These workers also need far less on-the-job training and tend to advance quickly to more demanding small engine repair jobs.

Employers often send mechanics and trainees to courses conducted by motorcycle, motorboat, and outdoor power equipment manufacturers or distributors. These courses, which can last up to 2 weeks, upgrade workers’ skills and provide information on repairing new models. Manufacturer classes are usually a prerequisite for any mechanic who performs warranty work for manufacturers or insurance companies.

Other qualifications. For trainee jobs, employers hire people with mechanical aptitude who are knowledgeable about the fundamentals of small engines. Many trainees get their start by working on automobiles, motorcycles, motorboats, or outdoor power equipment as a hobby. Knowledge of basic electronics is essential because many parts of small vehicles and engines are electric.

Advancement. The skills needed for small engine repair can transfer to other occupations, such as automobile, diesel, or heavy vehicle and mobile equipment mechanics. Experienced mechanics with leadership ability may advance to shop supervisor or service manager jobs. Mechanics with sales ability sometimes become sales representatives or open their own repair shops or dealerships.

Employment as a Small Engine Mechanic

Small engine mechanics held about 70,400 jobs in 2008. Motorcycle mechanics held around 18,800 jobs, motorboat mechanics held approximately 22,100 jobs, and outdoor power equipment and other small engine mechanics held about 29,400 jobs. Thirty-seven percent of small engine mechanics worked for motor vehicle and parts dealers, while 13 percent were employed in retail lawn and garden equipment and supplies stores. Nine percent were employed by repair and maintenance shops. Most of the remainder worked in wholesale distributors, equipment rental and leasing companies, and landscaping services. About 13 percent were self-employed, compared to about 7 percent of workers in all installation, maintenance, and repair occupations.

Job Outlook

Average employment growth is projected for small engine mechanics. Job prospects should be excellent for people who complete formal training programs. Use of motorcycles, motorboats, and outdoor power equipment is seasonal in many areas, so mechanics may service other types of equipment or work reduced hours in the winter.

Employment change. Employment of small engine mechanics is expected to grow by 7 percent between 2008 and 2018, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Growth will vary by the type of equipment these mechanics repair.

The number of registered motorcycles has increased steadily in recent years, leading to corresponding greater demand for motorcycle repair services. This trend is expected to continue, leading to new opportunities for motorcycle mechanics. Most new jobs will continue to be in the motorcycle dealer industry, as service operations are an important aspect of business for many firms in this industry. The increasing sophistication of motorcycles will create new opportunities for specialists in independent repair shops as well, however. Overall, motorcycle mechanics will grow by 9 percent, about as fast as the average for all occupations.

By contrast, the number of additional motorboats in use has been limited in recent years. The retail boat industry, the primary employer of repair technicians, has consolidated, creating fewer new opportunities for mechanics. As such, motorboat mechanics are expected to grow by 6 percent, slower than the average for all occupations.

Outdoor equipment mechanics will also grow by 6 percent, also slower than the average. Demand for repair services is expected to rise over time as outdoor machines become more complex. Growth is also projected in the landscaping services industry, which frequently uses small engine equipment that needs regular servicing. Most new jobs in this in this occupation will continue to be in outdoor small engine equipment retail shops.

Job prospects. Job prospects should be excellent for people who complete formal training programs. Employers prefer mechanics that have knowledge of multiple types of engines and emissions-reducing technology as the government increases regulation of the emissions produced by small engines. Many of the job openings for small engine mechanics will result from the need to replace the many experienced small engine mechanics who are expected to transfer to other occupations, retire, or stop working for other reasons.

Projections Data

Projections data from the National Employment Matrix
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2008 Projected
Employment, 2018
Change,
2008-18
Number Percent
Small engine mechanics 49-3050 70,400 75,100 4,800 7
Motorboat mechanics 49-3051 22,100 23,400 1,200 6
Motorcycle mechanics 49-3052 18,800 20,500 1,600 9
Outdoor power equipment and other small engine mechanics 49-3053 29,400 31,300 1,900 6
NOTE: Data in this table are rounded.

Earnings for Small Engine Mechanics

Median wages of motorcycle mechanics were $15.08 an hour in May 2008, as compared to $18.60 for all installation, maintenance, and repair occupations. The middle 50 percent earned between $12.10 and $19.20. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $9.76, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $24.27. Median hourly wages in the industry employing the largest number of motorcycle mechanics, other motor vehicle dealers, or retail shops selling vehicles other than cars and trucks, were $15.13.

Median wages of motorboat mechanics were $16.60 an hour in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $13.31 and $20.68. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $10.74, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $25.41. Median hourly wages in other motor vehicle dealers, the industry employing the largest number of motorboat mechanics, were $16.48.

Median wages of outdoor power equipment and other small engine mechanics were $13.91 an hour in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $11.24 and $17.03. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $9.12, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $20.40. Median hourly wages in lawn and garden equipment and supplies stores, the industry employing the largest number of outdoor power equipment and other small engine mechanics, were $13.66.

Small engine mechanics in small shops usually receive few benefits, but those employed in larger shops often receive typical benefits such as paid vacations, sick leave, and health insurance. Some employers also pay for work-related training, provide uniforms, and help mechanics purchase new tools.

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