“My dad bought a ’63 Ford Fairlane in 1973, and the thermostat needed to be changed. At age 13, I was told to give it a shot.” That was the beginning of Terry May’s career as an automotive technician.

May’s first paying job was at age 16, in the small garage in Roberts, Wisconsin. Then he honed his skills as a jet engine mechanic in the U.S. Air Force for four years. When he came out of the military, he went back into automotive repair. “I’m pretty much self-taught,” he said. “I took a lot of night classes. I got the CERTITECH certification from Amoco. I went to foreign car schools.”

After 40 years in the business, May said he has no intention of slowing down. He is now shop foreman for Honest-1 Auto Care in Cottage Grove. “I’m still working as hard as I did when I was 16. I will do it as long as I can. I really enjoy what I do. I’ve got five hotrods at home that I’m still working on,” he said.

Are automotive technicians in demand?

Next year there’s going to be 120,000 unfilled automotive jobs. When I came into the field, a lot of people were retiring, and not a lot of people were coming in. Now we’re running into the same thing. People are retiring or getting into service writer positions or something not as physical.

What would draw someone into the field?

My son in 8th grade was online to be a bioengineer, until he found out he was going to be in a cubicle. He said, “I like being outside in the garage.” We said “Whatever makes you happy.” Century College works with Gordon Parks High School to provide automotive education. In their junior and senior year, they can go out and learn some stuff. Some kids are just like me — they have a cheap car, they muddle through what they can. It’s a lot tougher to break in these days. How I got started was just hanging around. Then pretty soon the boss goes, “if you want to do something, just jump in. If you get stuck, I’ll come help you.” When you’re young you don’t figure out how good he was to you. Now I realize “Wow — I wouldn’t be here without his help.”

What’s the biggest change over the past 30 years?

The stress level of the olden days was in one direction — not knowing everything, wanting to be on top of the game. The stress level now is from the vast amount of different things. Every car system is completely different. The basics are there but the systems are different.

What’s the best part of the job?

It provides income to build hotrods. The enjoyment at work is when a customer picks up a car and says, “I’ve had this a couple different places and they couldn’t fix it. Thanks for taking care of it for me.” People will bring in a car, and they start telling me everything they’ve already done to fix it. I tell them, “I don’t want to know what you did — if I start where you left off I won’t find the problem.” If I go in as a new experience, I will start with basics and work my way through it. My son will call me when he runs into a problem. I say, “Go back to the basics. You missed something along the way.” □