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.
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.
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.
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.
Acoustic Edge - located in Houston, TX.
Mobile Technical Training - located in South Hackensack, NJ.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.