Special Report: Product Training and Technology: More Like Rocket Science -

Special Report: Product Training and Technology: More Like Rocket Science

Just when technicians think they have a handle on product training, something new is introduced to the market. Do you have the time, money and smarts to stay informed?

by Gary Goms

Product training continues to be an issue because the cost of training is going up in proportion to the complexity of vehicle technology. In short, it takes much more time for a manufacturer to condense relevant information into a typical three-hour night class. And, it takes even more time to establish the educational integrity and relevancy needed to teach technicians how to better use the manufacturer’s product.

When I started my career many years ago, all a mechanic needed to succeed was talent and a natural curiosity about how things worked. Times have changed — about 1,700 different models of vehicles are now sold in the United States. I will tell you from experience that the knowledge associated with maintaining and repairing those vehicles is beyond the comprehension of anybody not actively engaged in auto repair. Technology has exploded into something bigger than ever imagined.

The computer systems introduced in 1982 displayed about a dozen lines of data stream information and about a dozen to two dozen trouble codes. Since 2004, when the ultra-fast Controller Authority Network (CAN) systems were introduced into on-board diagnostics, we not only have hundreds of lines of data stream information displayed on as many as a dozen different system-specific data screens, but we now must deal with a thousand or more trouble codes. These codes are produced by an average of six to eight on-board computers or modules, all of which are networked together via bussed communications systems.

So, moving from an era in which most vehicle specifications were committed to a technician’s memory to an era in which information is so voluminous it must be contained on a dozen or more DVDs or accessed via high-speed Internet, the definition of basic technical education has changed. The “basics” of today consist not only of the knowledge associated with diagnosing and repairing fuel, ignition, starting, lighting and charging operating systems, but also with how to research and access technical information from multiple Internet and PC-based sources.

Because modern vehicle systems are so complex, the so-called “basics” must be taught in a structured environment like a vocational class or trade school. The idea that a young, untrained apprentice is going to “pick up” a coherent grasp of repair information by working in a production shop is highly unlikely. Even worse, the idea that an experienced mechanic can update his knowledge simply through hands-on experience is, to say the least, equally unrealistic.

Now that we’ve discussed basic education, let’s move to advanced training, which is on the opposite end of the educational spectrum. To help understand where we’re at in modern technical education, I’ll define advanced training as that provided to ASE Certified Master Automobile Technicians (CMAT) with the L1 certification in Advanced Engine Performance and electronics. The reason behind that definition is that the CMAT L1 technician is certified in all eight areas of mechanical automobile repair including advanced vehicle electronics.

While many of us may call ourselves “advanced” techs, those of us who manage to participate in truly advanced training are often humbled by the knowledge and background, not only of the instructors, but of fellow classmates attending these seminars and classes. My estimate is that the advanced technician represents only about five to ten percent of the technician population. Consequently, only about ten to 20 percent of the current technician population could truly benefit from advanced training.

I’ve spent half of this story beating around the bush about the importance of in-field product training. But most of this is about what product training is and what it is not.
Product training is not basic technical education because that’s a job best left to the local vocational schools. Product training is not advanced training because that would shift the training spectrum toward only the very small minority of technicians who could profit from it.

Quite to the contrary, product training is a continual series of technical updates that any technician needs to stay abreast of the problems and issues he faces each time he installs new products or applies new technologies. Without product training, the technician is left adrift in a world of hearsay and rumor. Worse, he’s confronted with technical service bulletins that may or may not address the problems he’s experiencing with squeaky brakes, leaking gaskets, or obnoxious driveability problems. To exacerbate the issue further, a technician may be installing an otherwise excellent product that, due to misinformation or mishandling, is being installed in such a manner that produces less than promised results. This works neither to the welfare of the paying customer nor to the marketing advantage of a product manufacturer.

What areas of mechanical expertise require the most active product training? First, let’s remember that the modern automobile has become very reliable. Second, it might surprise many that the value of on-board electronics will rise from about 20 percent of the value of the car in 2006 to as high as 40 percent of the value in 2010. While this statistic might be an off-the-cuff projection bandied about in trade circles, let’s take a look at new car ads.

We now have a car that parallel parks itself. We have vehicles with chassis electronics designed to prevent losing control of the vehicle. We also have vehicles with radars and televised screens to prevent accidents when backing up. Imagine the electronics required to perform these functions!

The most lucrative and necessary area of the automotive service market is in routine repairs and scheduled maintenance. Brake services are the most predominant because we’ve moved far beyond the issues of installing asbestos and the semi-metallic technology of the 1980s. Now we’re installing application-specific compounds designed to preserve braking performance while reducing brake dust, noise and weight. Another important aspect of repair is the increasingly complex world of gasket technology used to seal bi-metallic and even plastic engine components. Also, we are increasing the use of application-specific engine oils, coolants and other fluids. All too many shops, for example, assume that engine oil is a generic commodity when, in fact, it has advanced far beyond that in the imported engine markets.

Although the sales of ride control products have declined in many instances, the need for a more sophisticated understanding of electronically monitored or assisted steering and suspension systems has, and will, increase. And with a bow to electronics, we’re now entering an age in which “simple”exterior lighting such as a headlamp, tail or brake light might be controlled by an electronic module or computer.

Call it the wave of the future, but today’s motor vehicle shares much of the technology present in a high-performance jet fighter aircraft. Without adequate product training, the aftermarket technician has very little chance of keeping up with what has become, in the most literal sense, “rocket science.”

Gary Goms is a former educator and shop owner who remains active in the aftermarket service industry. Gary is an ASE-certified Master Automobile Technician (CMAT) and has earned the L1 advanced engine performance certification. He is also a graduate of Colorado State University and belongs to the Automotive Service Association (ASA) and the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). 

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