Article > Opinion

What It Takes To Be An Automotive Technician — These Days

By Gary Goms

Most people inside and outside our industry drastically underestimate what it takes to educate the modern automotive technician.
Now that we’ve just finished another election year with all of its promises made and promises yet to keep, it’s time for somber reflection about one of the primary forces driving our industry, which is public technical education.  While most politicians agree that public education in general is lacking, the question of whether education is lacking money or lacking standards continues to fuel the debate.

This debate is particularly relevant to the automotive parts distribution and service industries because we are becoming more reliant upon the technically-educated employee to make informed decisions on stocking, selling and installing motor vehicle parts. An ignorance of basic electricity, for example, costs our industry millions in wasted warranty parts replacements and lost shop time.

During my years of owning an auto repair shop, I’ve served as an auto technician instructor, a member of a technical curriculum and teaching standards committee, a school board president, and a chair of a trade association education committee. I also spent eight years studying part-time to earn a baccalaureate degree in adult technical education. What I’ve learned is that public general education and technical education in particular isn’t serving our industries as well as they should nor are the automotive parts and service industries supporting public education as well as they should.

In 1998, I spent six months writing the engine performance section of an automotive textbook being prepared by a major textbook company. It was an ambitious project and the result was a reasonably well-written textbook. But the project revealed that most people inside and outside our industry drastically underestimate what it takes to educate the modern automotive technician.

To illustrate, the text was to be written at the 8th-grade reading level. Given that most auto repair manuals are written at the 14th-grade or college sophomore level, we discovered that it was difficult, if not wholly impossible to communicate modern automotive technology at the 8th-grade reading level. Simply put, the words were too long and the abstract thought processes too complex to write at the 8th-grade level.

In addition, On-Board Diagnostics II (OBD II) electronics systems had come into being two years before, in 1996. These systems are very complex and require more sophisticated logical and critical thinking processes than did OBD I or non-OBD systems. The fact was that, in 1998, we found it extremely difficult to cram the OBD I technology of that era into a two-volume, 1,500-page text book, let alone the OBD II technology of the current era.
But there’s more. In the late 1990s, on-board vehicle telematics came into existence, which allows a vehicle to receive and transmit wireless communication. Telematics allows vehicles to be located, remotely diagnosed, and remotely controlled, such as unlocking doors at the owner’s request. In short, the vehicle is equipped to participate in all of the functions of the modern Internet plus receive instant technical evaluation and quick service.

In 2004, the Controller Authority Network (CAN) system was introduced, which allowed high-speed, prioritized communications to take place among multiple automotive computers and modules. Currently, an average vehicle has four or five on-board modules designed to control vehicle safety, security, communications, and drive train operating systems. Some high-end luxury vehicles have nearly 80 modules that must instantaneously communicate with each other in various vehicle-operating modes. These systems are now required to operate modern safety systems like vehicle stability controls and radar-based active cruise controls.

With this new technology in mind, we should understand that we’ve added very few, if any, additional instructional hours to our auto technician programs since the demise of pre-electronics era 30 years ago. For that reason, it’s virtually impossible to integrate complex OBD II, telematics, CAN systems, and other modern technology into the current 1,100 clock-hour technical education model. The solution within the current framework is for industry to offer more internship or apprenticeship opportunities for students wishing to work in the parts and service industries.

Modern auto technicians require good reading comprehension, math, science, and computer skills, plus the intellectual curiosity and academic drive needed to master the complex operating systems mentioned above. Consequently, kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) education provides the best foundation for any type of technical education. For that reason, local parts professionals, jobbers, shop owners, and technicians should take an interest in K-12 education, not only for educating their own children, but for educating future employees.
Unfortunately, current educational models don’t accommodate different learning styles and motivations.  Although I’ve always been an academically oriented student, I’ve also always been a hands-on learner. To illustrate, math has never been my strongest area of study. But give me a hands-on problem like calculating the average speed of a vehicle over the race course and I’ll master the math simply because the learning style and motivation is there to do that. Continuing to hammer square pegs into round holes serves no educational function and it’s time for that to change.


I’ll give you my short take on high school technical education by saying that these programs should be changed from the traditional career-bound to an exploratory model.  Without exposure to real-world career issues like getting grease in the hair and dirt in the eye, 15-year-old kids find it hard to make good career decisions. Consequently, I think it’s important to provide exploratory technical experiences to high school students via in-house and on-the-job work experience programs.

For those same reasons, college-level programs should focus on career-bound levels because most adult students enroll on that basis. Career-bound students should be taught safety, tool use, operating principles, basic diagnostic and repair procedures in-house. Career-bound students should also be placed in internship programs to learn the detailed hands-on skills needed to make a living in the auto parts and service industries.
With that said, the automotive parts and service industry should, within a model designed by industry itself and offered under the auspices of a trade association, be prepared to introduce these students to the real world of work. Only when industry thus honors its responsibility to education can any true technical education take place in the automotive parts and service sectors.

When we, as an industry, propose to work with public education, it’s important to understand how technical education works at the grass roots level. In Colorado, for example, we have some small districts with healthy tax revenue bases that don’t accept state funding. In other areas, we have districts that depend upon state funding for a large part of their revenues and, because of that, perpetually operate on a shoe-string budget. Inequalities in school funding therefore limit the career education options offered to many students.

Most public auto technician programs are also funded by federal money derived from the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act of 2006. Although Perkins money has long funded technical education, the Perkins Act itself has come under criticism the past few years because many in Congress feel that technical education isn’t fulfilling its intended function of providing trained workers for industry. Because so many adult programs are taught as hobby-oriented rather than career-bound activities, this feeling can well be justified in the minds of many legislators and tax payers.

Next, since most auto technician curriculums adhere to National Automotive Technician’s Educational Foundation (NATEF) guidelines, it’s important to understand that NATEF is always a work in progress.  Since the NATEF is a part of ASE, its guidelines generally follow the ASE skill and testing categories. So, industry isn’t going to change the structure of technical education as much as it can influence the implementation of these standards.
Last, all auto technician programs are required to maintain an advisory committee to help the school maintain a career-based direction in the program by suggesting changes in curriculum, equipment, and physical plant. Advisory committees are only as strong as their sense of accountability. Becoming involved in an active advisory committees is perhaps the first and best way any jobber, parts professional, repair shop owner, or technician can have a constructive influence on technical education in this age of extreme motor vehicle technology.

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).

  Previous Comments
avatar   will   star   1/8/2010   2:18 PM

What happens when the scan tool goes out? They can't diagnose it the old way, it's not that simple. I know O'Reilly's offers tech classes to the shops to check out new procedures and products. Gone are the days of pulling off a plug wire to find a misfire! Techs almost have to have 50k in tools and equipment these days in a big Snap-on trailer to do their jobs.

avatar   Jeeeeeep!   star   12/1/2009   7:04 PM

Some Mechanics need to just realize that Being a mechanic is not a job you can be "LAZY" on. If your going to do it right then don't cut corners, Which some mechanics do because they are too used to the " old school" ways. Get with the times and learn it then apply it.

avatar   RONNIE   star   11/23/2009   3:10 PM


avatar   Chris   star   11/21/2009   4:26 PM

Unfortunately, a lot of the old school guys are gonna have to learn the hard way what they can and can't do. I've stopped I don't know how many guys from buying Type F ATF for the newere Fords.

avatar   Lorenzo   star   11/16/2009   10:16 AM

I have been out of technical school for a year and have found that alot of the oldschool shade tree mechanics dont realy like when I try to help them get the right oil for their car because they always want to put straight 30 in a 4 cylinder kia and they always reply the same "ive been doing this fo 30+ years, I know what i am doing"

avatar   Chris   star   10/17/2009   4:16 PM

It does seem more and more these days that in order to work on anything newer than 2000, you have to have a bunch of classes and 50k worth of diagnostic equipment. I can remember the good old days when I was a teen and learned to rebuild a 4-barrel QuadraJet. That seemed unbelievably complicated at the time, but now, I'd give anything to go back in time!

avatar   Chuck Proctor   star   9/28/2009   6:31 PM

When I was in high school I didn't know what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I did know that I liked working with my hands and taking stuff apart to find out what makes it click. In high school I was dumb and just followed my friends around. On getting into a Technical high school the first year was trying out all of the trades. I just fell in love with automotive. Granted I didn't know anything about it at all. I couldnt even change my own oil. I thought how hard could this be? When they laid a 1300 page book on my desk I about fainted. To make a long story short I did graduate on the top of my class and went on to learn more in college. I am now ase certified and like to have continuing education when available. It does take alot of your time to get where I am at. I do work part time at o'reilly auto parts and I do get both sides. I just dont like it when someone comes in to purchase parts and you about have to argue with them to tell them they are doing it wrong. These days there are alot of peo

avatar   michael   star   8/27/2009   8:29 PM

I enjoyed reading the article,its to the point and true.Ive worked long and hard to achieve what i know and always wanting to learn more.It amazes me the amount of people that doesnt realize the time and effort it takes and remarks about the cost of there automobile repair.

avatar   Ed   star   8/7/2009   3:35 PM

Long gone are the days of the shade tree mechanic and DIY'er who likes to tinker? LOL, only when humans stop being human. When you have Big Box Shop A telling a customer they will do a job for $300 and then you have Shade Tree Mechanic with 15+ years of "experience" saying he will do it for $75 and two Budweisers, human nature kicks in and the customer goes for the cheapest alternative. Especially with the pre-conceived notion that Big Box Shops rip you off anyway. Just the other day I had a customer bring me back an alternator I just sold him, his "technician" told him we sold him a defective one. I tested it, good, I tested his old one, good, customer blamed our tester on being rigged or messed up because both alternators failed the "proper test" of lifting off the battery cables while the vehicle was running.

avatar   Bill Quincy   star   7/21/2009   11:38 PM

I am for the last 3 years been behind the counter and have dealt with both commercial and retail and it is so much easier to deal with the retail because thwe car is uaually outside and I can help them out easier. just like everything else i8mprovements are being made all the time and without the right learning procedures you are lost. the first step is in high school to keep the co-op and let the kids get dirty to see who will Belong.

avatar   Tracie Cogan   star   7/9/2009   11:09 AM

I worked in my dad's shop, helping him work on cars, for 4 1/2 years. Now I work at O'reilly Auto Parts. It is very different being on the other side of the fence. Right now I get the parts for the garages. Techs and owners are so picky about who they talk to. I don't remember being so picky, but I do remember getting a lot of wrong parts when I would call and they didn't really have a person who dealt strictly with the commercial end of the business. Here, I'm the commercial parts professional. Working on cars before does help me a lot. I know what most of what I am looking for.

avatar   gary hess   star   7/2/2009   7:31 AM

too true most people are unprepared for the world we work in. I have a counterperson who is ASE technician, but was completely lost when i threw him in front of a computer and customer. Once that shock was over, then we began finding parts in the computer, but had to then teach use-the-books skills, then work on no-books, grab the phone and call someone.

avatar   zac johnson   star   6/7/2009   4:21 PM

I have been on the autobody side of the industry and i am now working behind a parts counter. What i have noticed on the body/customs side as well as the mechanics side is that new school performance/handling/comfort features are clashing with the old school big horsepower/straight line/bare bones cars.

avatar   Gary M.   star   4/6/2009   10:45 AM

What is funny to me is that I am 26 years old. When out in the garage servicing my fathers 07 4Runner he didn't know what half of the sensors on the engine were or even how to approach doing a tune-up on it. This was common territory to me. When it came to working on my 72 LeMans my dad knew what everything was and how to check and set the points...... Most of this was foreign to me..... and then I understood how he felt about what I was used to seeing under the hood of the vehicles I am used to.

avatar   Jim   star   4/2/2009   8:53 AM

good article.

avatar   Art Tousignant   star   3/29/2009   10:31 AM

Very well put. I recently had a customer complain about why it costs so much to have repairs done to thier car. I gave pretty much the same arguement you outlined. Of course I added in the costs of overhead and equipment as well. It goes to the old adage.... Two dollars for fixing the problem.... Two hundred for finding it.

avatar   William Wylie   star   3/27/2009   7:35 PM

Long gone are the days when you dropped out of school and became a Mechanic or a Auto Parts Counterman for that matter ...

avatar   roger   star   3/27/2009   12:08 AM

As a Retired Auto repair Tech of25 years who is now on the other side of the counter. I have come to see that gone are the days of the Shade Tree Mechanics,The DIYer,who likes to tinker. Modern day suspension, Emmision, Transmission, and Brakes have gone hightech and you must be able to follow diagnoitics tress that lead to the solution the the problem.With the ever increasing cost of auto parts the days of "give me a set of plugs because I engine has a miss are gone.

avatar   Michael Kubarycz   star   3/25/2009   12:17 PM

Great Article

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