Anyone who has worked as a manager in the automotive industry for any amount of time has learned the difficulty of finding qualified technicians. It seems sometimes that there is no good way to determine with certainty if a technician has what it takes to perform the variety of tasks required. With hit and miss being a concern, how can fleet managers find competent technicians and educate the ones they already have? Technician certification, while not a panacea, is one way of both evaluating and producing competency in technicians.
Reasons for certifying technicians are many. Certification helps you find qualified technicians. It can be used as a training tool. It can limit liability exposure, and it can be used as criteria for technician advancement in both position and pay.
Finding Qualified Technicians
Even lengthy and thorough interviews can only accomplish so much. Being able to use the certification process, whether ASE, EVT, or factory certifications, can eliminate much of the time otherwise spent on evaluating technician competency. While it is clear that simply passing a test does not make one a top notch technician, it is a valuable method of testing technician knowledge. And while it is unfortunate that many excellent technicians are not certified, in today’s world it is unreasonable to expect advancement without measurable gains in technician ability.
Training technicians is a challenge for a number of reasons. First of all, it is difficult for a hardworking technician to commit the time necessary to quality training. Second, finding quality training is difficult. Training is marketed just like any other product, often with extravagant claims and more extravagant prices. Third, what can be boring and basic to an “A” tech may be over the head of a novice. Finally, the best training in the world is no good if the information is obsolete.
Certification can contribute to solving some of these issues. With the proper materials, each tech can proceed at his own pace. The work of studying the reference materials is similar to being able to look up vehicle repair information in the day-to-day routine at the shop. And finally, the act of taking the test can be a learning experience as the tech is challenged to figure out intellectually what he faces every day at work. Teaching the technician to think is one of the results of both test preparation and test taking.
Having a team of certified technicians can be one means of limiting liability exposure. Today, the goodwill exemption toward public servants, whether they be law enforcement, fire/rescue, or EMS has been replaced by the deep pockets of law. Municipalities are seen as juicy targets for civil liability awards. Because of this change in public mindset, limiting liability exposure must be a top priority for any fleet manager. Having and producing certified technicians shows that the team can stand up to the scrutiny of an independent organization that exists solely to evaluate the competency of technicians.
Finally, certification gives the manager an additional means of determining who should advance in position and pay. It takes a lot of effort to sustain the proficiency necessary to maintain certification in the variety of disciplines faced by today’s technician. This effort should be encouraged and rewarded. The economics of the situation may preclude offering a pay raise for each test passed, however if master status is achieved, pay should be commensurate with this.
To get into the “how” of the certification, we need to take a look at the history of our business. When the automobile first came on the scene, it was an opportunity for people with certain abilities to become mechanics. In keeping with that tradition, the history of auto repair has been one of having innately talented people, sometimes those without aptitude in other areas becoming our best mechanics. We all know of the guy who gifted with abilities to figure things out even if his language or social skills are lacking.
Our secondary education system has not always been our friend in this area. What started out as an opportunity for people with mechanical ability has become a destination for people lacking other areas. Shop class became place to put students who had trouble with math, science, and English. Although this was tolerable as few as 30 years ago, it no longer works today.
The modern automobile is an amazing collection of computer controlled systems that is changing rapidly, and we need some of the best and brightest in the automotive service industry. What we have as a result of our history are some very experienced and qualified technicians who struggle with the theory and “book learning” side of their job.
As such, it can be very difficult to interest established technicians in taking certification testing. After all, there are some out there whose knowledge rivals that of the people writing the test, and I speak as one who takes part in the test-writing process. If we are going to have certified (and happy) technicians, we are going to have to handle this situation delicately.
The technician needs to know why certification is important, and the above list is a starting point. He also needs to know that certification is only one of many ways his proficiency is evaluated. If all we use are test scores, we are not looking at the whole picture. If you have more than one technician in your shop, you already know that there are as many kinds of technicians as there are technicians. What motivates one tech irritates another.
There are “A” techs with years of experience and superior skills, there are “B” techs who are on their way to becoming “A” techs. There are “B” techs who have no interest in becoming “A” techs. There are novices, just entering the industry either from tech school or high school with varying amounts of interest in advancement. Certification testing, if properly handled, can help the fleet manager both evaluate technician skills and improve them for a wide variety of technicians.
There are many ways of motivating technicians to get certified. One of the most effective means that I have found in terms of economics is to offer one-time rewards for each test passed. Gift cards from Home Depot or Bass Pro Shops are welcome rewards for the recipient and a source of envy for the rest. This is actually more effective and less costly than a simple pay raise because it can be done with a little ceremony and splash. The fleet manager needs to value certification and vocalize how much it is valued.
Another issue that needs to be addressed with some technicians is the fear of failure that can be self-fulfilling. The manager needs to know the strengths and weakness of his technicians. Some can be given the study materials, turned loose and they pass the tests. Others, however, get dry throats and sweaty palms just thinking about taking a test. In these cases, there is an opportunity for the manager to help them get through the process. If you have a sharp tech that is afraid of the test, this may help.
First, emphasize the fact that testing is important but not everything. Try to put the tech at ease. Second, build up anticipation for the reward, whatever it is. Third, procure study materials with sample questions that can be done by the tech on his own (without someone looking over his shoulder) but with an understanding that he will be held accountable for doing the work. The goal, again, is to put the tech at ease, as much as possible, with the test-taking process.
Finally, be aware the test can be grueling, even for someone used to it. Since ASE testing is done in the evening, a balance of keeping the nervous tech busy without taxing him to his limit on the day of the test would be in order. EVT testing is usually done on a weekend so the challenges are different.
Being able to wear a patch that signifies the technician as ASE or EVT certified can give the technician pride—and rightly so. The recognition that comes with this can itself be a motivating factor for the technician to become certified.
The study materials are of utmost importance. If you are going to take ASE tests, these materials fall into two areas. There are reference materials i.e. shop manuals that the test writers use as resources. Also there are guides put out by ASE and several companies that specifically deal with individual tests. These materials usually include sample questions in the back with answers and explanations of the answers. If your fleet is of any size, you may want to gradually build a library of both kinds of materials that can be loaned out to the technicians for study and updated as needed.
In the case of EVT tests, the situation is slightly different. Because there are so many different vehicle modifiers and upfitters, the study materials are different. The way EVT operates, there are two lists in the preparation guide. One is a list of reference materials from which all test questions are derived. The other is a list of tasks, terminology, and operating principles that the technician will see in the test itself.
In order for any question to appear on the test, it must be referenced to both the task list and the reference material list. This allows the technician to prepare thoroughly and specifically and eliminates the possibility that he will see a question for which he is not ready.
In both ASE and EVT, questions are written by a committee of automotive professionals from a variety of backgrounds in the manufacturing, service, and educational fields. New questions are inserted in the test without point value until their performance can be evaluated. If a question stumps a high percentage of those taking the test, it is examined to find out why. Maybe it is because it is new technology and the techs need to catch up. Maybe it is worded ambiguously and needs the language cleaned up. But the thing to know is that the writers are not ivory tower speculators who write trick questions to trip up the test takers.
All in all, technician certification is a positive response of our industry to the changing needs of modern society. Staying abreast in this area will reap rewards for all involved.
Kevin Roberts is the president of Roberts Repair in Rhinelander, WI. The company has specialized in emergency vehicle maintenance since 1989. Roberts is an ASE Certified Master Automobile and Master Truck Technician. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.