How to Become a Car Audio Installer

So you want to be an installer? That's great as long as you know what you're getting into. It's not always about building competition systems and show cars all day. It's deck and fours (head unit and four speaker installations), FM modulated CD changers and remote start systems more than anything. It's hard work too. The installer spends his days bent over trunks, twisted into weird positions and lying upside in who knows what in order to install equipment. And don't expect a lot of gratitude for your work. Most customers are out the door before you can show them their system. I don't want to scare you away from it because it can be very rewarding. If you like to work with your hands and you're creative then you could wind up making a decent living at it. And no one says you have to do it forever. Who knows, maybe someday you could own your own shop. Here are a few tips for those interested in becoming a professional installer.

Build a Portfolio or a Rolling Resume

Assuming you are already familiar with basic installations and power tools (drill, table saw, jig saw, etc.) you need to showcase what you've done. This is where your portfolio comes in. A portfolio is simply an installer's résumé. It should be photos of all of the installations you've done, either paid or unpaid. At least include the interesting ones. If you haven't kept a photo log of your work but have a great system in your own vehicle then you can use it as your rolling résumé.

Landing Your First Job

The Catch 22 of almost any job is that if you don't have experience you can't get a job. Of course if you can't get a job then you can't get experience. Two good options are getting a job doing something else in the shop or to volunteer. You can start out stocking shelves, cleaning up or whatever else they need you to do and you'll be able to hang out with the experienced installers and learn from them. Then when an opening comes up you'll be the first in line because you're already familiar with how the store is run and you've learned something from the other installers. If you've got some decent experience you can work for free, either after hours or on the weekend until you've proven yourself worthy of a paid position. Most shop owners can't pass up free labor as long as they're confident you won't damage a customer's car. During this time you need to work very hard to prove your worth. You should be waiting for the shop owner to open the door in the morning and should have to be thrown out at night. Work hard, ask questions and just make yourself an invaluable part of the team. You need to make the shop better with you there than without you there.

Back to School

There are several installation schools that will teach you mobile electronics over a matter of weeks. They're positioned all over America and are generally several thousand dollars to attend. Whether they're worth it really depends on you. If you go there to hang out and party then you might as well stay home. If you go with a real desire to learn and don't have much experience installing then they may be what you're looking for. I've heard mixed feelings from shop owners on the quality of prospects they get from the installation schools. Personally, I'd prefer to learn on the job and put that money into a good set of tools. Of course I'm biased because I haven't attended any of the schools. The only formal installation training I've had was Fishcamp, a week long advanced training session taught by install legend Dave "Fishman" Rivera at the Installer Institute in Daytona Beach, Florida.

As an alternative to installation school you might consider learning your skills at home. There are several videos available that will teach you everything from basic system installation to more advanced custom work such as fiberglass and enclosure design. The price is a small fraction of the cost of attending an installation school and you can learn in your spare time and watch the videos over and over again. You can find out more about these videos here.

If you do decide that an installation school is right for you then you should seriously check out each of these schools. You might also check your local community colleges for classes. Especially those colleges dealing with vehicle electronics and woodworking.

Installer Institute - located in Holly Hills (Daytona Beach), FL. Part of the Metra Electronics family.

Acoustic Edge - located in Houston, TX.

Mobile Technical Training - located in South Hackensack, NJ.

Getting MECP Certified

One way to show prospective employers and customers that you are capable is to become MECP certified. The MECP (Mobile Electronics Certification Program) is administered by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and tests an installer's knowledge of mobile electronics installation. It is a paper test and can be taken at any number of Thomson-Prometric testing sites or at any public library (with the librarian's permission). There are several tests available. The easiest test is the Basic Installer test (formerly Bronze level). The next level is Advanced Installer (formerly First Class or Silver level). The ultimate test is the Master Installer (formerly Gold level) and there are only about 100 Master Level Installers in the world at any given time. The best way to prepare for the MECP test is to use the MECP study guide. The MECP guides for each test are available directly from MECP. For more information on the program go to the MECP website.

Tips for Passing the MECP Test

I've taken all three of the MECP tests (four if you count the Product Specialist test and I passed them all on the first attempt. Here's a few tips for passing the test on your first attempt.

1. Get the MECP study guide (I'd recommend the Advanced level guide). Study it until you think you know most of it. Then arrange to take the test either through a Prometric test site or at a local library. Contact the head librarian and ask if he/she will proctor the test for you. Explain that they only need to put you in a quiet area or a spare, open the envelope and physically hand the test to you. There's really not much for them to do but ask nicely or even write them a letter. I prefer writing a letter and leaving my contact phone number. This lets me better organize my thoughts and it looks more professional when it's typed out and signed. Then they wont' feel pressured to say yes or no right away. If you don't explain what you want exactly then they might not understand and will automatically say no.

2. Register with MECP to take the test

I'd recommend going for the Advanced level test if you have the test required experience level (one year). It's not a whole lot harder than the Basic level test and it's a better certificate to have. MECP will want you to certify that you have at least one year experience but if you've been working for yourself you can specify that. The certification will need to be notarized. At least you had to do that when I took the test.

3. Study the MECP guide everyday. Skip the Cellular section (should be out of the most recent guides) because it's not on the test. That leaves four sections to study. I'd read one everyday and then take a day off. Then repeat that two more times. Over the course of two weeks you'll have read the book three times. Pay extra attention to the margin notes because they're almost always on the test. I'd recommend writing out the margin notes by hand each time you read a section. This will put the information into your memory in another way. Make sure you know relays and their functions very well. The test will ask plenty of questions on what different relay wiring configuration will accomplish. You will also need to know the OSHA noise chart in the back of the book and be very familiar with Ohm's law.

4. The library will call you when they receive the test or just show up at your scheduled time if you're going to a Prometric site. Arrange a time to take it that is convenient for both you and the librarian. Give yourself plenty of time to take the test. The maximum allowable time is three hours.

5. The night before the test you should review the entire book. Get plenty of quality sleep. This is very important. As soon as you get up on the morning of the test you should review the book again. Then put the book away. Review it one last time about one hour before the test. Immediately before the test you should sit and clear your head. Listen to some Mozart while you're relaxing. It doesn't matter whether you like classical music or not. Mozart has been shown to increase test scores and calm your nerves. You can learn more about that here if you're interested. Bring a portable player and listen to the music in a quiet corner of the library or in your car until test time.

How Much Will You Get Paid

The $64,000 question, or for entry level installers, the $20,000 question. That seems to be the average starting wage for entry level installers. Top installers can make a lot more, upwards of $50,000. It's really hard to say what the average is because it varies by area and by how the shop calculates pay. Some shops pay straight hourly wages and some pay commission based on the installation labor charged for work you do. Some pay a combination of both. The best thing to do is ask installers in your area how they get paid. But don't ask them how much they make unless they bring it up. The "big" money is usually paid to the installation manager and can reach $100,000 or more per year. But this usually involves long hours and plenty of headaches.

Key Traits of a Successful Installer

  1. Work Ethic - Show up early for work and stay late. Don't come in tired or hung over. Go the extra mile without being asked. Do a check-in and check-out of every car, every time.
  2. Abilities - Installing isn't just about turning screws and crimping wires. You're a craftsman, an upholstery expert, fiberglass expert, Plexiglas expert and an expert troubleshooter. You need to keep current with trends and make sure you have the skills to handle them. And you need to be able to work quickly. Anyone can do the job in an eight hour day but you have to do it in two hours because you've got two more right behind it.
  3. Team Player - Do you play well with others? If not you'd better learn. You're part of a team and it's not a team of one. Help out even if it's not your job. You're going to need help too.
  4. Attitude - No one likes a whiner, especially your boss. No one cares if it's tough or if you can't figure out how to do it. You have to have the attitude that you can do it. If you can't figure it out by yourself then ask someone else. You aren't getting paid extra if you do it without asking. You get bonuses if you finish it quickly.
  5. Motivation - When things are slow in the bay you'd better not be goofing off. There's always something to do. Sweep up. Stock shelves. Help the sales people. Make speaker rings for the next custom install. Your boss is paying you to make money for the shop. Do something productive.
  6. Creative - Don't get stuck in the same routine. If you've mastered fiberglass then move on to working in Plexiglas or metal. Combine different materials into the same piece. Use your imagination. That's what makes being an installer fun.

 


The Car Audio Help DVD catalog includes five different videos covering many areas of car audio installation and custom fabrication. Topics range from basic system installation (head units, CD changers, amplifiers, speakers, etc.) and mobile security (car alarms and remote start) to subwoofer box design and fiberglass fabrication. If you're interested in custom fabrication and car audio installation be sure to check out what we have to offer.

Click here to see the discount DVD packages


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