Auto Mechanics -- Who Are These Guys and How Are They Trained

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Now that you’ve determined that you have a problem, and narrowed down the choice of repair facilities, you should be briefed on the background of the people you’ll be dealing with. Years ago, a mechanic was a guy who was good with his hands who fixed cars. Not any more. In fact, with the complexity of today’s machines, the technical knowledge that these guys must possess is staggering, especially dealership “technicians.” There are over 500,000 pages of Ford service manual material that a Ford dealership technician should be familiar with. Does he know them all? No. Is he required to know them all? Again, no. And with the cars segueing into computers each year, the problem of finding qualified mechanics will continue to escalate. It is estimated that by the year 2010 there will be a shortage of 110,000 qualified automotive mechanics, which means there will most likely be a plethora of unqualified mechanics out there who say they can fix your car as long as you pay cash. It also means that more training will be required, more licenses, seminars and who knows? It may get to the point where a degree in engineering is required to work on the cars of the near future.

THE EVOLUTION OF THE MECHANIC

Back in the early days, when the automobile first began to transform society, most people thought of the mechanic as a sort of wizard. He possessed a secret working knowledge about the horseless buggies that fascinated and confused most owners, who only cared that it went from point A to point B. When the darn thing stopped running, the mechanic reached into his magic bag of tricks to make it work again. It didn’t matter how he got it back on the road. The fact remained that he did it and with apparent ease—a trick, a secret—something that was akin to turning base metal into gold.

The truth of the matter was, most of the mechanics of yesteryear had learned from the school of hard knocks, skinned knuckles and bashed fingers, as well as plenty of trial-and-error. If the domestic manufacturers did not supply an adequate repair manual (most of them didn’t), or if the mechanic did not have one to refer to (he usually didn’t), the odds were that he would dismantle three times as many parts as he had to get the job done. Even this was not fail-safe since he always ran the risk of forgetting the assembly order of the pile of parts that now lay scattered about his shop.

In the decades that followed, cars became larger, heavier and more elaborate in design. They evolved into more than just a vehicle for transportation, transforming into a status symbol and a small extension of the home, equipped with as many creature comforts the chassis could withstand; heaters, air conditioners, radios, electric seats, automatic windshield washers, turn signals and anything else that could be dreamed up were added. But added comfort and convenience could also translate into headaches and more trips to the repair shop. Put simply, there were now more things that could go wrong.

CERTIFICATION and LICENSES

How are mechanics trained and certified? How and where do they get their licenses? What organizations exist that are responsible for training and certification? Why are nearly all of the training programs voluntary? With the lofty hourly repair rates being charged, are you sure that you are receiving these services by skilled and certified professionals, or, is the fact that all mechanics are licensed and certified, illusionary? These are just a few of the questions we must ask. In no other industry will you find such a blurred line of distinction between those who are really qualified and those who are not. Let’s examine some organizations who are presently implementing training and certification programs.

NIASE—This is the abbreviation for the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence. This independent, non-profit organization has been testing the competence of automotive mechanics since 1972. NIASE is governed by a Board of Directors that represents all sectors of the automotive industry, as well as the educational community, government and consumer groups. NIASE’s primary function is to test and certify automobile and heavy-duty truck technicians, body repairers and painters. Their program consists of a series of written tests given twice yearly in over 400 locations throughout the country. When a technician passes one or more tests, and has completed the required two years of related work experience, he is officially certified; given a “blue seal” patch, certificate, and pocket credentials. The questions are written by a panel of technical service experts from domestic and import vehicle manufacturers, repair and test equipment and parts manufacturers, plus vocational educators.

NIASE tests in the following areas: Engine Repair, Engine Performance, Suspension and Steering, Brakes, Automatic Transmission! Transaxle, Manual Drivetrain and Axles, Electrical Systems, and Heating and Air Conditioning. However, the technician need pass only one test in one repair area to be certified. So don’t assume that if a mechanic shows you his NIASE card that he is qualified to work on any area of the car, unless the patch or certificate says, “Master Automobile Technician,” which signifies he has passed all eight areas.

NIASE certifications are valid for 2 years, after which time technicians must recertify to keep up with changing technology. The NIASE testing and certification program is the largest and most recognized in the country. Most of these certified technicians can be found in dealerships, and shops who prefer their technicians certified. Since certification is not strictly enforced, the certifications are wide-spread, and not any one repair facility employs NIASE certified staff exclusively, unless it's their decision to do so. Currently, there are over 200,000 NIASE certified technicians in the U.S. Let’s hope you find one.

The Bureau—The Bureau Of Automotive Repair (BAR) is an agency that's part of the California Department of Consumer Affairs, and it's responsible for the licensing of qualified inspection/repair technicians for the purpose of smog, headlamp and brake certification. Test-only mechanics are permitted to test and inspect vehicles according to BAR procedures. Qualified test-only mechanics are prohibited, by definition, from doing vehicle repairs or from conducting after-repair certification tests. Qualified test/repair mechanics may conduct both initial and after-repair certification tests as well as vehicle emission control system adjustments and repairs to failed vehicles.

Mechanic applicants for either test or test/repair qualification must submit an application with a nominal fee to the BAR office. They then must prove successful completion of the Bureau’s “Clean Air Car Course” (smog), from an institution recognized by the bureau. Such educational institutions, like the Allen Training Facility, have courses which last 54 hours and cover all aspects of emission control related work and study preparation. A proficiency exam is required by the educating institute, as is an additional exam served by the BAR office given at a later date. Both exams are similar to the NIASE tests, including multiple and true/false questions, except that they are related to the most popular sought after license—the smog test/repair license. The qualification license expires in two years and the applicant must reregister and take another exam to be awarded a new license.

The owner or manager of a repair facility can be a licensed Inspector by sending in an application fee and a signed declaration. The declaration states that he is the operator of the station and is responsible for the validity of the tests, repairs and compliance with Bureau- prescribed Inspection and/or repair procedures. He is also responsible for the receipt, handling, exchanging and immediate forwarding of cassette tapes (shop records) to the state. An Inspector need not be a test/repair mechanic, but he can't perform any smog check inspections or repair unless he is a licensed test/repair mechanic. An Inspector’s license expires in one year. Both the test/repair mechanic or Inspector whose license has expired can't perform any relative tests or repairs for which they have been previously licensed by the BAR.

The guidelines set forth by the BAR are specific and unbending. Any mechanic who wants to perform smog checks or other certifications must abide by the standards and practices of the BAR and the pursuant sections as ascribed by the California state vehicle code. Any shop or repair station that displays official certification emblems or signs indicates to the public that there is a BAR licensed test/repair mechanic and/or inspector on the premises at all times. Smog licensed mechanics and inspectors are required to display these licenses in plain view on the shop premises.

Unfortunately, California is the only state that has such a regulatory agency. Hopefully, other states will institute similar programs soon.

In-House Certification—Many automobile manufacturers sponsor their own testing and certification programs. One such example is Toyota’s Technical Training facility in California, which serves the needs of distributors and dealerships. These testing and certification programs are aimed at the technicians who work specifically with a certain make automobile. The programs include update seminars on new models, along with problem solving classes in certain areas of diagnosis and repair. The very nature of these testing and certification programs limits the technicians to work and study only on the manufacturers models. Courses of study and certification include pre delivery service and optional equipment installation, which make up a large part of the programs.

Through cooperating colleges and technical schools around the country, GM, Ford and Chrysler offer two-year programs leading to an Associate Degree in Automotive Technology. The training is comparatively better with these larger programs, combining classroom instruction with actual on-the-job experience at sponsoring auto and truck dealerships.

Though these certification programs are respected and highly valuable within the manufacturer’s product line, they are seldom recognized with as much importance by a competitive manufacturer. For example, a Volkswagen technician would be required to retrain and recertify in a Toyota establishment.

Colleges and Vo-Tech Schools—There are a great many colleges and technical vocation schools that offer training in auto repair, paint and body shop repair and other related services. These courses, whether for certification or credit, are designed to teach basic principles and fundamentals, with the exception of the larger technical institutes and some of the full credit two- and four-year courses offered by colleges. The smaller community based programs attract the general public as well as beginning mechanics and serve the purpose of introducing the “fundamentals” to the novice, or those seeking a semi-apprentice position. Though they may claim that they are officially recognized with credentials, the fact is, most of them are not, and only count as partial or non-official programs. NIASE, for example, will award one year of work experience credit for three full years of high school auto shop training. They award one year work experience credit for two full years in a public or private trade school, technical institute, or four-year college program. For short course community programs, NIASE awards one month credit for every two months attended.

A few well known trade schools are NRI and Northwood Institute. Northwood is an accredited four-year college with campuses in Michigan, Texas, and Florida. Northwood, which is supported by the Nation al Automobile Dealers Association (NADA), has a two-year Associate Degree program in automobile or truck marketing, automotive after market management and automotive service management. It also offers a four-year Bachelor of Business Administration Degree.

TYPES OF MECHANICS

Not all mechanics and technicians require the same training to satisfy the needs of the different repair facilities. There is a vast difference between the study and qualifications of a dealership technician and that of a “general service” mechanic who works in a chain or tire store. The size and popularity of a facility also has a direct bearing on what kind of budgets are allocated to train auto repair personnel. It is even possible that the attitude and image of the management staff have a direct bearing on what is required of their mechanics and technicians. The question of training ultimately affects the pay scale and motivation of individual mechanics. Hierarchy structures do exist throughout the facilities and this affects attitudes and the amount of professionalism each facility is capable of. It is important for you to know how these mechanics and technicians differ, and in what areas of repair and professional service they excel or do poorly. Consider the following categories a yard stick by which to measure the expertise of the different repair personnel.

Department Store Mechanic—For a long time, training films sufficed as the sole means of instruction for department store mechanics. Through repetition, mechanics acquired the skills that made them excellent “remove and replace” (R and R) mechanics. Heavy diagnostic thinking has never been part of the department store mechanic’s pro gram. So when it came to installing a battery, a set of tires, a brake job, an exhaust system, an alignment, or a tune-up, they were quite proficient. Nothing has changed much today. The department stores ordinarily train and certify their mechanics through their own educational programs, and provide their own local or regional instructors. Written tests have now become commonplace. But these brief tests and proficiency exams are not designed to cover the more in depth and major areas of auto repair, like engine overhaul and heavy transmission work. Rather, the mechanics are certified in specific areas such as brakes, front-end, tune-up and air conditioning.

Many of the mechanics are required to attend update training seminars, to watch films and discuss problem areas. Many department stores pay their mechanics to attend the additional training programs, even sending them out of state if necessary.

However, more often than not, it’s literally a “nuts and bolts” issue with the department store mechanic. In essence, he is limited by what he has performed in the past. Mr. Hank Benck, Executive Director for the Automotive Service Association of Illinois, says that, “most of the department store chains are more interested in fast-selling components and services. In fact, the sales of parts play such a priority that it overshadows, in some cases, the profit margins brought about by labor. The ‘in and out’ concept holds true with the large department stores just as it does with the quick stops. Good engine rebuilding is time consuming. Also, the liability factors are too great to enter into more difficult repair areas. With the mechanics, emphasis is placed on replacing parts rather than on extending their training in technology.”

The department store mechanic often works on a commission or bonus program, which is an incentive for him to sell additional parts over the prescribed work. His hourly wage varies but it falls some where between $9.50 per hour for a general service position, up to $16.00 or $18.00 per hour.

Dealership Technician—As mentioned before, dealership technicians are highly trained and professional. That is why they are referred to as a “technician” rather than as a “mechanic.” Dealership technicians must attend extensive training seminars before they begin work, and thereafter, take frequent update seminars to keep current with new models and technical developments. Unlike private shops, these technicians are forced to take these seminars as a job prerequisite. They also have the finest equipment and tools at their disposal.

Another advantage you’ll find with the dealership technician is that he doesn’t work on any other type of car, and has seen many of the same problems time and time again.

Most dealership mechanics fancy themselves as the highest form of technician. They are everything but an R and R mechanic. They are diagnosticians. Technical troubleshooters. Scientists. Craftsmen. But never referred to in the trade as “mechanics.” They are paid extraordinary sums for performing some of the same tasks that other mechanics undertake. Most are licensed and certified. Most dealership technicians are NIASE certified, experienced and know every nut and bolt on their make of car.

He is not forced to sell, because the selling of parts and additional service are left to the service manager or service writer, therefore you will rarely, if ever, deal with him directly.

A dealership technician is required to attend update training seminars on a constant and regular basis. This includes studying manufacturer’s new parts, industry bulletins, and attending specially sponsored training programs. Some dealerships institute rigid “refresher” courses that are intended to aid the technicians in passing their reclassification courses to keep their licenses and certificates current. Chain Store Mechanic—These mechanics are paid an hourly wage (not much more than department store types), and many of them operate off of the previously mentioned bonus and commission system that breeds dishonesty. The more parts they sell, and the higher number of cars they turn out, the more they make.

Most of the mechanics are certified through their own company program, and are sometimes sent to class sessions and instruction. A good percentage of chain store mechanics in California have smog licenses issued by the State Bureau of Automotive Repair. Sometimes a chain store will work with outside agencies such as The National Institute For Automotive Service Excellence, The Automotive In formation Council, and The Automotive Service Association (all affiliated), to schedule periodic testing for the issuance of licenses and certification. An NIASE certified mechanic is not often found in a chain store because such certification would entitle him to higher pay than that offered by chain stores.

The sheer volume, quick turnaround time and bonus and commission pay scale forces the chain store mechanic to work at a hectic pace, which often leads to slipshod work and costly mistakes. Accidents happen. Any time there is high volume auto repair coupled with a commission or bonus system, the by-product will be greed and careless ness. The customer suffers because he is prey to mechanics who have to sell parts to achieve bonus pay.

The chain store mechanic performs mostly R and R work, and is not usually experienced in repairs involving internal work on major components such as transmissions, engines, clutches and chassis. Like the department store mechanic, this mechanic can be very good at what he does—R and R repair. He learns mostly through repetition, especially in the tire and muffler chains, because the process for removing and installing tires and mufflers is just about the same for any make of car. This doesn’t give the chain store mechanic a lot of motivation to improve beyond this level, nor do most companies give them the incentive. Corporate training programs are not usually enforced in the chain stores past the point of initial certification or “checkout” in certain repair areas, because if the chain store mechanic were to progress beyond this point, he’d probably move on to a more demanding, higher paying job.

Service Station Mechanic—Whether or not a service station mechanic is licensed and certified is something you’d have to check for yourself. Smog licenses must be openly displayed by the management—this is state law. Too frequently it does not apply to other credentials. If he has gained proficiency and holds other credentials he will usually hang them up to show proof of expertise. A few of the larger service station chains have NIASE mechanics, but it's not likely. Heavy R and R work in a typical gas station is uncommon. This is due to their limited resources, heavy competition and poor employee prospects. The owner/manager might be the only person in the station who holds any type of certification or license, and even this is subject to question.

It is common for a service station mechanic to work on a 40/20 commission deal. This is a labor and parts package that allows the mechanic to keep 40% of the actual labor money that he performs plus 20% of the parts that he sells or causes the shop to sell. Many times he is given a choice. He can accept either a high hourly wage or he can work on the labor and parts program. Invariably, many of them choose the commission. At some service stations the owners give them no choice and offer the commission-only option. This labor and parts commission deal is just as deadly as the bonus system that department and chain stores employ. It works by the same principles. It’s also to the station owner’s advantage to let the mechanic sell as much as he can.

To be sure there are some service station mechanics who are old veterans and really care about the condition of your car as well as your wallet. Some of these mechanics have been working in the same spot for over twenty years. These mechanics know every one of their customers by name along with the peculiarities of their cars. Quite often, the owner is also the mechanic, service writer, cashier and gas pumper!

Quick Stop Mechanics—To call a quick stop employee a mechanic is a bit of a stretch. He is overworked and underpaid. He is under-trained. But he is in high demand because he will work so hard for so little. These mechanics are the lowest paid in the business.

Oil change, tune-up and smog check might be their strong suit but their expertise in other areas of repair should be questioned.

Surprisingly, quick stop mechanics could be very eager to pursue additional outside training courses in their sincere desire to move on. They soon discover that their wages are too low for the amount of work they are producing, and their chances for advancement are not likely to improve. Training provided by the management would be sparse, if any.

Specialty Shop Mechanic—Here you might find a “diamond in the rough,” especially in foreign car repair. A specialty shop technician generally really cares about what he does, and has a deep appreciation for the cars he specializes in. He fancies himself as a craftsman and adopts an approach to his business as such.

Many of these mechanics have probably come from the dealerships and set up their own shops, possibly taking some of their fellow technicians along with them. Their familiarity with a specific make of car allows them to diagnose and solve problems quickly.

Most specialty shop technicians hold the licenses and certifications that a dealership technician would, such as NIASE certification. New employees in specialty shops are expected to participate in these training and testing programs in order to advance into journeyman positions or serve beginning apprenticeships and to maintain the high standards set by the owners. The technicians are paid a flat hourly rate for prescribed work. Nevertheless, the hourly rate is very high, better than all other facilities except the dealership.

You’re likely to get some of the best, and most honest service from a specialty shop because they rely heavily on reputation and word of mouth. They don’t have the huge marketing and advertising support of large dealerships and mega chain and department stores. The technicians might have more direct contact with the customer, even though service managers are responsible for this association.

Specialty shop technicians also are very good about keeping abreast of the technological advances in the cars they specialize in.

SUPPORTING PLAYERS

Aside from the mechanic, there are other people you’ll deal with. In fact, depending on the facility, you may never get to deal with the mechanic or meet him. In large repair organizations, your car can change hands as many as a half a dozen times, traveling an assembly line before it's done. You should know exactly who is handling each area, why, and what are their limitations, duties and areas of expertise. There are channels of authority that you must be aware of in solving the root of the complaint (if you have one), as well as asking service advice and other questions. Who holds the power in most shops? Who is really the boss? How high up must you go to resolve a serious customer satisfaction complaint?

Conversely, in smaller shops, i.e., gas stations and quick stops, there might be only one or two individuals that you deal with, and depending upon whom, you will have to know which one is responsible for your ultimate satisfaction.

The Service Manager—He or she can be called a shop foreman, service writer, service manager, general manager, department store manager, or “owner.” He is directly responsible to the establishment for income, contact with the public and the general welfare of its employees. He is the boss from whom the mechanic must take direction. Most first impressions of a repair facility will be made by this one person.

Managers can be fine-tuned individuals, molded and bred from managerial schools, but more often they have worked their way up from “lot lizard.” Though some mechanics make excellent managers, it's not true that most managers have been mechanics at one time. Not full line mechanics, at any rate. While it's preferred to have a manager with mechanical aptitude and skills, as well as a general knowledge of auto parts, it's not a prerequisite. In many shops a mechanic is discouraged from seeking a managerial position. Though he has the technical knowledge of repair procedures, he often lacks the right personality for the job.

The manager is the one who gives the estimate and has you sign the repair order, and dealing with him is therefore seen as a necessary evil. Customers often believe the service manager, not the mechanic, is responsible for your repair bill, when in truth both are.

Managers are under a lot of pressure. Not only must they deal with distraught, suspicious and irritated customers, but they are also faced with controlling the bottom line, inventory, scheduling and shop personnel. He is often under pressure to maintain and increase preset repair quotas, and this pressure can lead him astray.

You will deal with service managers in large repair facilities such as dealerships, specialty shops, chain and department stores, and even in some muffler shops and quick stops. The service manager will be the person who writes up your initial repair invoice and assigns your car to a specific mechanic. The mechanic diagnoses or confirms the work to be done, and often recommends additional repairs (be they necessary or unnecessary). The service manager then tries to convince you to have the additional repairs made, and to sign for the estimate that just rocked you back on your heels. He depends on the accuracy of a diagnoses from the mechanic; he does not usually make repair diagnoses or tests himself, unless they are very simple.

Service Advisors and Writers—In large facilities and most dealer ships, you’ll be greeted and checked out by a service advisor or writer, who is not a manager nor a mechanic, but the person responsible for getting down all of your repair problems and writing them up on a repair order. He is a middleman, and generally operates on some commission, therefore it's to his advantage to sell you additional service that you may not need. He’ll tell you that they’ll check the brakes for free. When he does that, you may expect a call from him to get you to authorize additional repairs. If you have a problem, it starts with this person, but doesn’t end with him. That’s for the service manager.

Lot Lizard—This is the lowest form of life in a large chain, department store or dealership. It is a person, usually a young teenage boy, who is required to perform odd jobs such as “gassing up” and washing customer’s cars. He is also the one who will most likely deliver your car to you. Many times they are directed by mechanics to perform menial tasks, such as cleaning up spills, sweeping, cleaning parts and tools. What you don’t want to see is the lot lizard under the hood of your car with tools in his hand.

Parts Manager—The parts manager directs work and manages the parts department. Parts managers typically work at dealerships where a large stockroom of parts is needed for repair. He usually directs a number of parts men who take part orders from mechanics. You would deal with him if you wanted to purchase a dealer part to take to another, less expensive but trusted facility to install. You’d also deal with him if you had to return the same part because it was faulty or defective.

Department Manager—Department managers are usually found in department stores. His counterpart at a dealership would be a general manager. They have authority over the service manager in that they must run both the outside repair facility and the inside auto parts floor or department, or the entire dealership in that case. He will direct all employees in sales and repair. His main subordinates are the service manager and the sales floor manager, who he must coordinate to keep both departments functioning smoothly. A complaint that can't be resolved with the service manager can many times be solved by the department manager.

Next: Getting Started -- Be Prepared and Don’t Sign the Order Just Yet

Prev.: Repair Facilities -- Choosing the Best One



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