Automobile Collision Repairers

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QUICK FACTS

  • School Subjects: Computer science; Technical/shop
  • Personal Skills: Following instructions Mechanical/manipulative
  • Work Environment: Primarily indoors, Primarily one location
  • Minimum Education Level: Some postsecondary (vocational) training
  • Salary Range: $21,000 to $35,180 to $59,720+
  • Certification or Licensing: Recommended
  • Outlook: About as fast as the average
  • DOT: 807
  • GOE: 05 03 01
  • NOC: 7322
  • O*NET-SOC: 49-3021.00, 49-3022.00, 49-3023.02

OVERVIEW

Automobile collision repairers repair, replace, and repaint damaged body parts of automobiles, buses, and light trucks. They use hand and power tools to straighten bent frames and body sections, replace badly damaged parts, smooth out minor dents and creases, remove rust, fill small holes or dents, and repaint surfaces damaged by accident or wear. Some repairers also pro vide repair estimates. Approximately 179,200 automobile collision repairers are working in the United States, plus 26,800 automotive glass specialists and 773,000 general auto mechanics.

HISTORY

The proliferation of the automobile in American society in the 1920s meant new opportunities for many who had not traveled far beyond their hometown. It also created something else by the thousands—jobs. One profession necessitated by America’s new love for automobiles was that of the collision repairer. With ill-prepared roads suddenly overrun by inexperienced drivers, accidents and breakdowns became a common problem.

Automobiles were significantly simpler in the early years. Body repairs often could be performed by the owner or someone with a general mechanical aptitude. Minor body dents, if they did not affect driving, were usually left alone. As cars became more complex and as society grew ever more fond of their automobiles, the need for qualified collision repairers grew. Automobiles suddenly became major status symbols, and people were no longer indifferent to minor dents and fender-benders. To many, dents were intolerable. New body styles and materials made body repairs a difficult job. To meet this new demand, some automobile mechanics shifted their focus from repairs under the hood to repairs to the body of automobiles.

By the 1950s, automobile body repair garages were common in cities throughout the United States. More drivers carried vehicle insurance to protect against loss due to an accident. The insurance industry began to work more closely with automobile collision repairers. Since traffic control methods and driving rules and regulations were not very well established, frequent car accidents kept these repair garages busy year-round. Most collision repairers learned the trade through hands-on experience as an apprentice or on their own through trial and error. When automakers began packing their cars with new technology, involving complex electrical circuitry, computer-controlled mechanisms, and new materials, as well as basic design changes, collision repairers found themselves in need of comprehensive training.

THE JOB

Automobile collision repairers repair the damage vehicles sustain in traffic accidents and through normal wear. Repairers straighten bent bodies, remove dents, and replace parts that are beyond repair. Just as a variety of skills are needed to build an automobile, so a range of skills is needed to repair body damage to vehicles. Some body repairers specialize in certain areas, such as painting, welding, glass replacement, or air bag replacement. All collision repairers should know how to perform common repairs, such as realigning vehicle frames, smoothing dents, and removing and replacing panels.

Vehicle bodies are made from a wide array of materials, including steel, aluminum, metal alloys, fiberglass, and plastic, with each material requiring a different repair technique. Most repairers can work with all of these materials, but as car manufacturers produce vehicles with an increasing proportion of lightweight fiberglass, aluminum, and plastic parts, more repairers specialize in repairing these specific materials.

Collision repairers frequently must remove car seats, accessories, electrical components, hydraulic windows, dashboards, and trim to get to the parts that need repair. If the frame or a body section of the vehicle has been bent or twisted, frame repairers and straighteners can sometimes restore it to its original alignment and shape. This is done by chaining or clamping it to an alignment machine, which uses hydraulic pressure to pull the damaged metal into position. Repairers use specialty measuring equipment to set all components, such as engine parts, wheels, headlights, and body parts, at manufacturer’s specifications.

After the frame is straightened, the repairer can begin to work on the car body. Newer composite car bodies often have “panels” that can be individually replaced. Dents in a metal car body can be corrected in several different ways, depending on how deep they are. If any part is too badly damaged to repair, the collision repairers remove it with hand tools, a pneumatic metal-cutting gun, or acetylene torch, and then weld on a replacement. Some dents can be pushed out with hydraulic jacks, pneumatic hammers, prying bars, and other hand tools. To smooth small dents and creases, collision repairers may position small anvils, called dolly blocks, against one side of the dented metal. They then hit the opposite side of the metal with various specially designed hammers. Tiny pits and dimples are removed with pick hammers and punches. Dents that cannot be corrected with this treatment may be filled with solder or a putty-like material that becomes hard like metal after it cures. When the filler has hardened, collision repairers file, grind, and sand the surface smooth in the correct contour and prepare it for painting. In many shops the final sanding and painting are done by other specialists, who may be called automotive painters.

Since more than the body is usually damaged in a major automobile accident, repairers have other components to repair. Advanced vehicle systems on new cars such as antilock brakes, air bags, and other “passive restraint systems” require special training to repair. Steering and suspension, electrical components, and glass are often damaged and require repair, removal, or replacement.

Automotive painting is a highly skilled, labor-intensive job that requires a fine eye and attention to detail for the result to match the pre-accident condition. Some paint jobs require that less than the whole vehicle be painted. In this case, the painter must mix pigments to match the original color. Although this can be difficult if the original paint is faded, today’s computer technology is making paint matching easier.

A major part of the automobile collision repairer’s job is assessing the damage and providing an estimate on the cost to repair it. Sometimes, the damage to a vehicle may cost more to repair than the vehicle is worth. When this happens, the vehicle is said to be “totaled,” a term used by collision repairers as well as insurance companies. Many body repair shops offer towing services and will coordinate the transfer of a vehicle from the accident scene as well as the transfer of a totaled vehicle to a scrap dealer who will salvage the useable parts.

The shop supervisor or repair service estimator prepares the estimate. They inspect the extent of the damage to determine if the vehicle can be repaired or must be replaced. They note the year, model, and make of the car to determine type and availability of parts. Based on past experience with similar types of repair and general industry guidelines, estimates are calculated for parts and labor and then submitted to the customer’s insurance company. One “walk around” a car will tell the collision repairer what needs to be investigated. Since a collision often involves “hidden” damage, supervisors write up repair orders with specific instructions so no work is missed or, in some cases, done unnecessarily. Repair orders often indicate only specific parts are to be repaired or replaced. Collision repairers generally work on a project by themselves with minimal supervision. In large, busy shops, repairers may be assisted by helpers or apprentices.

Key Skills for Success

Diane Rodenhouse is the owner of Rodenhouse Body Shop in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The shop has been in business for more than 55 years. We asked Diane to detail the skills that young people need to be successful in collision repair.

To be successful in their careers, young people need to place as many tools in their “toolbox” as possible. These tools include the following:

• English grammar. You need to have the ability to communicate accurately and professionally in an email or letter.

• Chemistry. There are many paint formulas and chemicals in a collision shop. A basic understanding of how to handle these products and how they work adds value to your toolbox.

• Math. The tool of math can make or break your net profit. For example, how do you figure the cost of the repairs? Body shops usually work by commission. How do you figure your wages? Part discounts and mark up—how do you do the math?

• Computer skills. The paint mixing system, the frame machine, the estimating programs are all done via computer software.

The collision repair industry is a complex, high-skilled profession. Every day is filled with new challenges and opportunities to learn and add to your toolbox of life. There is a shortage of young people entering the collision repair industry. If you study to fill your toolbox and are willing to work responsibly, you will be very successful in the collision industry.

REQUIREMENTS

High School

Technology demands more from the collision repairer than it did 10 years ago. In addition to automotive and shop classes, high school students should take mathematics, English, and computer classes. Adjustments and repairs to many car components require numerous computations for which good mathematics skills are essential. Reading comprehension skills will help a collision repairer understand complex repair manuals and trade journals that detail new technology. Oral communication skills are also important to help customers understand their options. In addition, computers are common in most collision repair shops. They keep track of customer histories and parts and often detail repair procedures. Use of computers in repair shops will only increase in the future, so students will benefit from a basic knowledge of them.

Postsecondary Training

A wide variety of training programs are offered by community colleges, vocational schools, independent organizations, and manufacturers. As automotive technology changes, the materials and methods involved in repair work change. With new high-strength steels, aluminum, and plastics becoming ever more common in newer vehicles and posing new challenges in vehicle repair, repairers will need special training to detect the many hidden problems that occur beyond the impact spot. Postsecondary training programs provide students with the necessary, up-to-date skills needed for repairing today’s vehicles.

Certification or Licensing

Collision repairers may be certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence. Although certification is voluntary, it is a widely recognized standard of achievement for automobile collision repairers and the way many advance. Collision repairers who are certified are more valuable to their employers than those who are not and therefore stand a greater chance of advancement.

Other Requirements

Automobile collision repairers are responsible for providing their own hand tools at an investment of approximately $6,000 to $20,000 or more, depending on the technician’s specialty. It is the employer’s responsibility to provide the larger power tools and other test equipment. Skill in handling both hand and power tools is essential for any repairer. Since each collision repair job is unique and presents a different challenge, repairers often must be resourceful in their method of repair.

While union membership is not a requirement for collision repairers, many belong to the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers; International Union, United Automobile, Aero space and Agricultural Implement Workers of America; Sheet Metal Workers International Association; or International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Most collision repairers who are union members work for large automobile dealers, trucking companies, and bus lines.

EXPLORING

Many community colleges and park districts offer general auto maintenance, mechanics, and body repair workshops where students can get additional practice working on real cars and learn from experienced instructors. Trade magazines such as Automotive Body Repair News (http://www.abrn.com) are excellent sources for learning what’s new in the industry. Such publications may be available at larger public libraries or vocational schools. Many journals also post current and archived articles on the Internet. In addition, the Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair offers a useful career exploration site, http://collisioncareers.org.

Working on cars as a hobby provides invaluable firsthand experience in repair work. A part-time job in a repair shop or dealership allows a feel for the general atmosphere and the kind of problems repairers face on the job as well as a chance to learn from those already in the business.

Some high school students may gain exposure to automotive repairs through participation in organizations, such as SkillsUSA (http:// www.skillsusa.org). SkillsUSA coordinates competitions in several vocational areas, including collision repair. The collision repair com petition tests students’ aptitudes in metal work, metal inert gas (MIG) welding, painting, alignment of body and frame, painting, estimation of damage to automobiles, and plastic identification and repair. Skill sUSA is represented in all 50 states. If your school does not have a SkillsUSA chapter, ask your guidance counselor about starting one or participating in a co-op arrangement with another school.

EMPLOYERS

Automobile collision repairers hold about 179,200 jobs in the United States, not including 26,800 glass specialists and 773,000 general service technicians and mechanics. Most work for body shops specializing in body repairs and painting, including private shops and facilities operated by automobile dealers. Others work for organizations that maintain their own vehicle fleets, such as trucking companies and automobile rental companies. More than 15 percent of automobile collision repairers are self-employed, operating small shops in cities large and small.

STARTING OUT

The best way to start out in the field of automobile collision repair is, first, to attend one of the many postsecondary training programs available throughout the country and, second, to obtain certification. Trade and technical schools usually provide job placement assistance for their graduates. Schools often have contacts with local employers who seek highly skilled entry-level employees. Often, employers post job openings at nearby trade schools with accredited programs.

Although postsecondary training programs are considered the best way to enter the field, some repairers learn the trade on the job as apprentices. Their training consists of working for several years under the guidance of experienced repairers. Fewer employers today are willing to hire apprentices because of the time and cost it takes to train them, but with the current shortage of high-quality, entry-level collision repair technicians, many employers will continue to hire apprentices who can demonstrate good mechanical aptitude and a willingness to learn. Those who do learn their skills on the job will inevitably require some formal training if they wish to advance and stay in step with the changing industry.

Internship programs sponsored by car manufacturers or independent organizations provide students with excellent opportunities to actually work with prospective employers. Internships can also pro vide valuable contacts who will be able to refer the student to future employers and provide a recommendation to potential employers once they have completed their training. Many students may even be hired by the company at which they interned.

ADVANCEMENT

With today’s complex automobile components and new materials requiring hundreds of hours of study and practice to master, employers encourage their workers to advance in responsibility by learning new systems and repair procedures. A repair shop’s reputation will only go as far as its employees are skilled. Those with good communications and planning skills may advance to shop supervisor or service manager at larger repair shops or dealerships. Those who have mastered collision repair may go on to teaching at postsecondary schools or work for certification agencies.

EARNINGS

Salary ranges of collision repairers vary depending on level of experience, type of shop, and geographic location. The median annual salary for automotive body and related repairers was $35,180 in 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. At the lower end of the pay scale, repairers with less experience and repairers who were employed by smaller shops tended to earn less; experienced repairers with management positions earned more. The lowest paid 10 percent earned $21,000 or less, and the top 10 percent earned $59,720 or more. In many repair shops and dealerships, collision repairers can make more by working on commission, typically earning 40 to 50 percent of the labor costs charged to customers. Employers often guarantee a minimum level of pay in addition to commissions.

Benefits packages vary from business to business. Most repair technicians can expect health insurance and a paid vacation from employers. Other benefits may include dental and eye care, life and disability insurance, and a pension plan. Employers usually cover a technician’s work clothes and may pay a percentage of the cost of hand tools they purchase. An increasing number of employers pay all or most of an employee’s certification training, dependent on the employee passing the test. A technician’s salary can increase through yearly bonuses or profit sharing if the business does well.

WORK ENVIRONMENT

Collision repair work is generally noisy, dusty, and dirty. In some cases, the noise and dirt levels have decreased as new technology such as computers and electrostatic paint guns are introduced. Auto mobile repair shops are usually well ventilated to reduce dust and dangerous fumes. Because repairers weld and handle hot or jagged pieces of metal and broken glass, they wear safety glasses, masks, and protective gloves. Minor hand and back injuries are the most common problems. When reaching in hard-to-get-at places or loosening tight bolts, collision repairers often bruise, cut, or burn their hands. With caution and experience, most learn to avoid hand injuries. Working for long periods in cramped or bent positions often results in a stiff back or neck. Collision repairers also lift many heavy objects that can cause injury if not handled carefully; however, this is less of a problem with new cars as automakers design smaller and lighter parts for better fuel economy. Automotive painters wear respirators and other protective gear, and they work in specially ventilated rooms to keep from being exposed to paint fumes and other hazardous chemicals. Painters may need to stand for hours at a time as they work.

By following safety procedures and learning how to avoid typical problems, repairers can minimize the risks involved in this job. Likewise, shops must comply with strict safety procedures to help employees avoid accident or injury. Collision repairers are often under pressure to complete the job quickly. Most repairers work a standard 40-hour week but may be required to work longer hours when the shop is busy or in handling emergencies.

OUTLOOK

Like many service industries, the collision repair industry is facing a labor shortage of skilled, entry-level workers in many areas of the country. Demand for collision repair services is expected to remain strong, as the number of cars in the nation grows, and employment opportunities are expected to increase about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2016. This demand, paired with technology that will require new skills, translates into a healthy job market for those willing to undergo the training needed. According to Auto motive Body Repair News, as the need for skilled labor is rising, the number of people pursuing collision repair careers is declining. In many cases, vocational schools and employers are teaming up to recruit new workers.

Changing technology also plays a role in the industry’s outlook. New automobile designs have body parts made of steel alloys, aluminum, and plastics—materials that are more time consuming to work with. In many cases, such materials are more prone to damage, increasing the need for body repairs.

The automobile collision repair business is not greatly affected by changes in economic conditions. Major body damage must be repaired to keep a vehicle in safe operating condition. During an economic downturn, however, people tend to postpone minor repairs until their budgets can accommodate the expense. Nevertheless, body repairers are seldom laid off. Instead, when business is bad, employers hire fewer new workers. During a recession, inexperienced workers face strong competition for entry-level jobs. People with formal training in repair work and automobile mechanics are likely to have the best job prospects in such times.

The best employment prospects will be found at automotive body, paint, interior, and glass repair shops. Little employment change is expected at automotive dealerships. Faster-than-average employment growth is predicted for automotive glass installers and repairers.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

For information on scholarships, contact:

Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association

7101 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, Suite 1300

Bethesda, MD 20814-3415

Tel: 301-654-6664

Email: aaia@aftermarket.org

http://www.aftermarket.org

For information on training opportunities, contact:

Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair

5125 Trillium Boulevard

Hoffman Estates, IL 60192-3600

Tel: 800-422-7872

http://www.i-car.com and http://ed-foundation.org

For information on accredited training programs, contact:

National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation

101 Blue Seal Drive, Suite 101

Leesburg, VA 20175-5646

Tel: 703-669-6650

http://www.natef.org

For information on certification, contact

National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence

101 Blue Seal Drive, SE, Suite 101

Leesburg, VA 20 175-5646

Tel: 888-ASE-TEST

http://www.asecert.org

For information on careers, visit:

Automotive Careers Today

http://www.autocareerstoday.net

INTERVIEW

Steve Garrett is an instructor of automotive collision technology at Indian Hills Community College (http://www.ihcc.cc.ia.us) in Iowa. He discussed the field below:

Q. Tell us about your college’s program and your background.

A. The Indian Hills Community College Automotive Collision Technology program is an 18-month, six-term program that covers such topics as air-conditioning, welding, sheet metal fundamentals, application of fillers, detailing, glass, mechanical repairs, frame and unibody damage analysis, plastic repair, steering/suspension, estimating, and refinishing—from introduction to advanced. Successfully completing these courses along with related arts and sciences courses will reward a graduate with an associate of applied science degree.

As for my background, I was exposed to the auto body business at an early age through friends of my dad. I was fascinated with the ability to make a beat-up vehicle look new again. In high school I took an introductory class in auto body during my junior year and a half-day vocational class in my senior year. The next step was to enroll in the auto body program at Indian Hills, which was a one-year diploma program at that time.

Eventually I went to work at a high production collision repair shop in Kansas City, then a General Motors dealership body shop. At that point I decided it was time to try making a living on my own. After about four years, the dealership that I had worked for offered me the manager’s position. That was a very valuable experience and during that time I strengthened my relationship with Indian Hills, which led to the opportunity to become an instructor.

Q. What is one thing that young people may not know about a career in automotive collision repair technology?

A. Because of the continual changes in vehicle systems and construction methods, ongoing training is required. Many employers encourage their technicians to participate in industry training courses by offering bonuses and advancement based on their achievements.

Q. What made you want to become an automotive collision repair technology teacher?

A. When I started in this career I had no intention of being an instructor. Through involvement with the Indian Hills Community College advisory committee for auto collision, I realized a desire to pass on this skill. I also felt it was a good direction to advance my career.

Q. What advice would you offer automotive collision repair technology majors as they graduate and look for jobs?

A. First of all, I would advise you to pursue an education at a reputable vo-tech college where you could improve your skills and receive a degree and credits, although many high schools offer top-quality courses that may be sufficient for employment. Hopefully, by the time you graduate, you have decided that this is the career that you desire. If so, be sure to maintain a passion for this business, be critical of yourself in the quality of work you do, and present yourself as the professional you are.

Q. What are the most important personal and professional qualities for teachers?

A. As a teacher in this field of study, it takes a person with very good communication skills and patience. Also, involvement in community activities is important, as well as a good relation ship with other industry professionals.

Q. What are the most important personal and professional qualities for automotive collision repair technology majors?

A. Intelligence, like most professions, is a necessary quality. Patience (do you like intricate work?) and an artistic ability are very helpful because shaping body filler is basically sculpting. In addition, repair technicians need to be physically fit.

Q. What is the employment outlook in the field?

A. Career opportunities in automotive collision repair are very good compared to similar skilled trades although an aspiring auto body technician needs to be educated properly in the repair business. I wouldn’t say that there is a shortage of technicians, but there is a need for qualified techs.

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