As with many mechanics and parts professionals, I’m getting ready to sign up for ASE’s spring 2014 test series. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that ASE is now 41 years old. During 1973, when I was teaching auto mechanics at my local community college, ASE was known as the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (NIASE). I passed my first four A-series mechanic certifications to become a “single-gear” mechanic in 1973. We also, at that time, began incorporating ASE certification preparation classes into our auto mechanics program. In 1974, I passed the remaining four A-series certifications to become a “double-gear” Certified General Auto Mechanic. Since 1974, I’ve added the Advanced Engine Performance L1 certification to my resume.
I opened my first shop in 1977 and, a few years later, I trained my two young mechanics to pass their Certified Master Auto Mechanic certifications. During the late 1980s, I also became a member of the Colorado Automotive Service Association (ASA-CO) and returned to college to finish my bachelor’s degree in occupational education. ASA-CO was, of course, an active supporter of what had now become ASE by actively promoting ASE (as it should) at all of our trade shows and consumer affairs activities. To my surprise, my ASE Certified Master Auto Technician (CMAT) certification counted as 32 credit hours toward my college graduation requirements. In 1998, I was requested to participate in an ASE A-8 Engine Performance certification workshop, which was a unique and edifying experience for a small shop owner like me.
And, just a year later, I wrote the engine performance section of an automotive textbook for a large publishing company. One of the most challenging tasks of that assignment was to incorporate ASE’s National Automotive Technician’s Education Foundation (NATEF) Task List into the text and workbooks. So, it’s fair to say that, as a participant, I’ve gained many positive experiences over the years working with ASE.
The only constant in our technologically driven world is change. Prior to 1972, when ASE began testing mechanics, most shops would see a customer’s vehicle about three to four times per year for lubrication, adjustments and routine repairs like tune-ups brake service and exhaust replacements. In 1973, Chrysler Corp. introduced electronic ignition systems into their production vehicles. In 1974, catalytic converters were mandated for all passenger cars and light trucks sold in the United States. In 1982, all passenger cars and light trucks incorporated electronic engine management and on-board diagnostic systems. In 1996, the federally mandated and standardized On Board Diagnostics II (OBD II) were introduced on all passenger cars and light trucks sold in the United States. Today, electronic body control systems are standard equipment with most average vehicles containing at least six modules and luxury vehicles containing nearly 80 modules that perform many formerly manual functions like unlocking the doors and operating exterior lighting.
As technology grew, so did ASE.
To deal with the sophisticated on-board electronics being introduced during the mid-1990s, ASE created the L1 certification, which tests the knowledge-intensive skills required to diagnose complex power train and body control electronics. And, because parts distribution has become increasingly complex, ASE initiated the “P” series Parts Specialist testing. Since the current automotive service market is becoming more maintenance-based, ASE has now created the G1 Auto Maintenance and Light Repair Certification test for technicians working in quick-service shops. More complete information about ASE certification can be found at the http://www.ase.com/About-ASE.aspx website.
During the 1970s and 1980s, many technicians believed that ASE would eliminate incompetent technicians, increase compensation and improve working conditions. Of course, if we follow professional forums like the International Automotive Technician’s Network (iATN), we know that many of these problems are still with us. And we also know that, in many localities, the Great Recession of 2008 has worsened these very problems. Unfortunately, many technicians feel that ASE should directly address these and many other problems afflicting the automotive service industry.
Of course, this column represents only my personal opinion. But ASE is essentially a non-profit organization whose scope of operations is confined to testing and certifying the competency of automotive professionals. We therefore shouldn’t confuse the roles of ASE with those of the Automotive Service Association (ASA) and other trade associations. While ASE provides competency testing, ASA and similar organizations are geared toward addressing industry issues like shop and mechanic licensing, business and personnel management and creating a more positive public image for our industry. Both efforts deserve our wholehearted support.
Other issues concern the testing methods used by ASE to certify competency. Many technicians claim that a hands-on test would better represent a technician’s working knowledge. Speaking as a former educator and as one who has taken both hands-on and multiple-choice tests, I believe that the multiple-choice test wins hands-down. The efficacy of hands-on testing is obviously limited by the technician’s familiarity with the tooling and with the vehicle application. A Volvo technician, for example, might experience difficulties diagnosing a Chevrolet check engine light problem because the real-world tooling and vehicle configurations can be markedly different. The other, and most important, issue with hands-on testing is how effectively it measures the technician’s skills in solving abstract problems. With hands-on testing, the technician must diagnose an actual vehicle, with which he might not be familiar, whereas multiple-choice testing allows the test writers the luxury of designing a “composite” vehicle that represents the most common aspects of current automotive design.
Again, speaking as a former educator, multiple-choice tests can be designed to ask questions and therefore test skills in a more strategic manner than does hands-on. On a more real-world level, most of us know some very strategic questions that we might ask a job applicant during a job interview. If that person has the appropriate knowledge and experience, he will reply to each specific question with the desired answer.
Last and most important, a multiple-choice test lends itself very well to forming a test bank of questions dealing with the same content, but stated in different ways. This allows the test writer to reduce the probability of cheating by composing multiple versions of the same test. It also allows the test writer to “fine-tune” the test bank by using statistical analysis to verify the effectiveness and technical validity of each test question. The test also can be easily updated, question-by-question, to meet current technical standards. While it’s entirely possible that, while a small minority of mechanics might be better test-takers than they are mechanics, the overall validity of the ASE test series is difficult to challenge.
The ASE Yardstick
One constant in the automotive service industry is the need for establishing a threshold standard for measuring auto mechanic competencies. Since 1972, that standard has been the ASE certification tests. Of course, auto manufacturers often require application-specific testing for their technician to ensure the service-ready status needed to perform new vehicle warranty repairs. But the limitations of application-specific testing are obvious due to these competencies not readily transferring to other nameplates and systems. At the personal level, I sincerely believe that ASE provides the “yardstick” we need to establish at least one standard we need to make our automotive service industry more professional and more responsive to advancing technology. Without ASE, we’ve returned to the dark days of 1971, when we lived in a “Tower of Babel” regarding technical competency. With ASE, we have only to look forward to a brighter and more prosperous future.