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Careers on the water

Mechanic: solving a boat’s ins and outs

By Chris Landry / Senior Reporter

For Glenn Miller, Mercury’s SmartCraft engine control system was easy enough to install. It’s basically a plug-and-play setup. But Miller, an enthusiastic 21-year-old student at the Marine Mechanics Institute in Orlando, Fla., wanted more. He needed to know how it worked from start to finish.

Salary range: $34,000 (starting) to $100,000
Future employment prospects: excellent
Training and education: no formal education required, training programs recommended
For information: Marine Mechanics Institute (www.uti.edu/marine), engine manufacturer programs

So Miller tapped chief instructor Richard Smith. Miller and Smith spent nearly six hours one night pouring over diagrams and schematics until Miller firmly grasped the computer-controlled system. “Glenn was always willing to learn,” says Smith, an instructor at the institute for nearly five years. “He always wanted to take the extra steps.”

In today’s fast-changing world of marine propulsion, students like Miller are finding out that graduating from mechanics school is only the beginning of a lifelong education. “I’m on the Internet every night trying to keep up with the technology,” says Miller, now 22 and sole proprietor of Miller’s Mobile Marine, in Pasadena, Md. “It’s a lot of work, but challenging and fun.”

Miller began turning wrenches as a young boy. His father, a former helicopter mechanic who served four years in Vietnam, used lawnmowers to school his son in the basics of the internal combustion engine. Miller eventually moved to cars and worked at an auto repair shop from age 16 to 19. He also grew up messing about in boats — his first was a small Boston Whaler with a 5-hp outboard — so when he tired of automobile work, he decided to try his hand at marine engines.

“I’m always on the water,” says Miller, referring to his service calls along the shores of Chesapeake Bay. “It’s a relaxing working atmosphere. You can be alone and work in peace.” In contrast, Miller faced constant distractions while working on cars. Customers tended to hang around and ask too many questions, he says.

Miller graduated from Marine Mechanics Institute in January 2007 and launched his business four months later. “I’ve been really busy since Day One,” he says. “I was concerned about the price of gas, but surprisingly it’s not stopping a lot of people [from boating]. I am busier than last year.”

A 1999 Ford F350 diesel pickup truck serves as his shop. About 20 percent of his business comes from diesel-boat owners, including commercial crabbers. In fact, it was Miller’s early success with diesels that led him to enroll in the institute. He competed in a SkillsUSA competition for diesel engines on the state level, placing third in his junior year of vocational high school. In his senior year, he earned first prize and a scholarship from the Universal Technical Institute. Miller discovered he could use his scholarship money to attend the Marine Mechanics Institute, a division of UTI.

The institute’s Marine Technology Training Program consists of 60 weeks of training — five hours a day, five days a week, says Richard Thomas, the institute’s assistant education director. Tuition is around $23,000, he says. “Right now we have a 91 percent job placement rate, and demand is increasing,” Thomas says.

After only about 15 months in the business, Miller has his eye on an established marine propulsion repair shop in Pasadena. He’d like to buy the business from the owner, who plans to retire soon. It’s an attractive venture because the business is well-established and carries certification for such brands as Mercury/MerCruiser, Volvo Penta and Evinrude. With that certification comes the opportunity to buy all the tools and diagnostic equipment necessary to work on these sophisticated engines. Miller says you must be a dealer to purchase the equipment, which can cost thousands of dollars.

Soundings technical consultant Erik Klockars, himself an independent marine technician, can attest to the high cost of tools. It costs roughly $2,500 to become a dealer and about $10,000 for Mercury’s diagnostic equipment kit, which includes a computer and software, he says.

“It’s expensive as hell to run your own business, so you have to love it,” says Klockars.

Miller will have no problem with that.

 




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