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Special Report: The ABCs of Technical Skill Levels

Sitcom stereotypes are no match for today’s master technician.

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By Gary Goms

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The popular stereotype of auto technicians as amiable, but socially inept tinkerers has been indelibly forged by scripts written for movies and television. The Baby Boomer generation, (your shop instructor) for example, might recall actor Michael J. Pollard’s portrayal of C.W. Moss in the classic 1967, “Bonnie and Clyde.” In that movie, C.W. Moss repairs bank robber Clyde Barrow’s car by “just blowing away” some dirt from the carburetor. Moss became part of the Barrow gang because of his ability to keep the getaway cars in fine tune.

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Television viewers might also recall the “Mayberry R.F.D.” television series with the amiable Jim Nabors playing gas station attendant and mechanic Gomer Pyle. And then there was “Happy Days,” with Henry Winkler playing the leather-jacketed “Fonzie,” who worked as a part-time mechanic in a local garage.

Although Pollard’s and Winkler’s portrayals were the high points of the entertainment media’s characterization of the “generic” auto mechanic, today’s master technician is a much more complex individual, with a generally good education and a relatively sophisticated political and social outlook. As we shall see, the media’s image of the “generic” mechanic is a mistaken stereotype that doesn’t match the realities of today’s independent automotive service market.

MECHANICAL CURIOSITY

Thinking back into my early years, I’ve always been fascinated with things with motors, gears, wheels and levers. More than once I incurred my dad’s wrath for taking apart my Christmas toys before the Christmas tree was taken down. For better or worse, intellectual curiosity about mechanical things is the driving force for most state-of-the art auto technicians.

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Of course, we’ll always have the hangers-on, the nine-to-fivers and the jacks-of-all-trades who do carpentry and plumbing work when they’re not busy trying to repair motor vehicles. It’s been predicted for years that modern technology will drive these fellows out of business, but they seem as prolific as ever, even in our new world of complex motor vehicle technology.

What differentiates the true master technician from the nine-to-fiver is the intellectual curiosity that drives one to rise well above the immediate demands of his job. Without that curiosity, an “auto mechanic” becomes just another day laborer who would be better employed on a job where the learning curve is short and the mental challenges few.

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TOO MUCH TO LEARN
In earlier times, lazy young men often looked to auto repair as a safe refuge from the academic demands of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Today, the amount of education needed to properly repair a modern automobile is such that most young technicians find it necessary to attend a public vocational program or a private automotive training school.

The quality of these experiences varies in direct relation to the academic prerequisites required by the school. Students with good academic records in high school are usually the most likely to understand the abstract principles of modern-day automotive electronics and computer systems. Students without a good academic grounding are most often those who work in the tire shops, muffler shops, and quick lube facilities.

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In the United States, most dealership and independent shops rely on vocational education to provide basic technical education for prospective auto technicians. In Canada and Europe, conventional apprenticeship and on-the-job programs provide basic technical education and a long-term learning structure for prospective technicians. In either situation, the need for a better understanding of basic math, physics and chemistry has become apparent in training youngsters to work on modern electronic vehicles.

ASE TESTING
In 1972, the independent, non-profit National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence(ASE) laid out the parameters for professional competency in auto repair by constructing a series of eight tests designed to evaluate auto repair skills. Those skill areas are: engine repair (A1), automatic transmission and transaxle (A2), manual drive train and axles (A3), suspension and steering (A4), brakes (A5), electrical and electronic systems (A6), heating and air conditioning (A7) and engine performance (A8). An automobile advanced engine performance specialist (L1) test was later added to cover the more complex on-board diagnostic systems used in 1996 and later OBD II vehicles.

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In many cases, technicians tend to specialize along the original ASE classifications or to use one or more ASE certifications as core skill areas. Major engine repair has, for example, become a specialty because precision machine work is often required to restore the engine to original specifications. Engine machining work has thus become the “M” series of ASE tests that relate to cylinder head and cylinder block machining and finishing. Similarly, major automatic transmission manual transmission, transaxle, and drive axle overhauls have become the domain of specialty rebuilders.

In the independent shop, steering, suspension, brakes, and exhaust have become “under car” specialties or core skill areas. Heating and air conditioning, engine maintenance tune-up, and electrical/electronics have become “quick service” specialties or core skill areas, with the definition of a core skill area as the technician’s major area of expertise.

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Currently, ASE has certified 289,725 technicians in one or more skill areas. More than 97,805 technicians have mastered all eight skill areas to become Certified Master Automobile Technicians; 49,013 technicians have passed the increasingly difficult Advanced Engine Performance Specialist test; and 2,130 technicians and rebuilders have passed the Master Engine Machinist test. About 9,342 technicians have passed the X1 Exhaust Systems specialty test. So, in terms of technical skill areas, many technicians have migrated to various areas of skill and expertise in diagnosing, maintaining, and repairing modern automobiles.

SKILL LEVELS
No qualitative system currently exists to estimate how well an auto technician can perform specific repairs. Although each ASE test assigns a test score, these scores are based upon answering questions which may later be rewritten or declared invalid. Missing one such question can significantly reduce test scores on the heavily condensed recertification tests.

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Technicians who score 90 percent or better on their ASE tests are considered the “A-level” technicians generally recognized as the shop’s “go-to” persons. The “D” tech, on the other hand, is generally considered barely competent to perform the task at hand. The technicians in the B and C categories comprise the bulk of technicians who are generally average on diagnostic ability but good at replacing parts and major components.

MARKET NICHE SPECIALISTS
Given the complexities of many vehicle nameplates, it’s not surprising that many technicians tend to think of themselves as market niche specialists. Because the learning curve is long on many high-end import and domestic vehicles, technicians tend to specialize in repairing these nameplates or to avoid working on them altogether.

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Similarly, some technicians become mobile repair specialists who perform many minor repairs and maintenances on fleet or personal vehicles while others may become mobile air conditioning specialists who repair vehicle air conditioners for used car lots, dealerships, and private parties. Others may prefer to service only four-wheel drive and off-road vehicles. The fact of the matter is, technicians tend to search for and fill niches in the contemporary automotive service market.

PERSONALITY PROFILES
Quite to the contrary of the Gomer Pyle and Fonzie stereotypes, some auto technicians have earned four-year college degrees and most have earned an associate’s degree in auto repair or have experienced varying levels of post-secondary academic education. Most therefore understand the importance of using math and science to help decipher the workings of the modern motor vehicle. Most modern “A-level” technicians appear to be very socially and politically conservative and appear to have become the social and technical equivalents of modern computer technicians. The only thing that might give them away is the slight trace of grease under their fingernails and an insatiable curiosity for all things mechanical.

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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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