The Untrained Mechanic

Lyle Ellerbee

If you have been through the manufacturer-dealership gauntlet with a lemon vehicle, you probably wondered why they didn’t simply fix the problem and let you get on with your life. You didn’t start your day thinking, how can I get the manufacturer, or this %$%^$& dealership to pay. You’d be happy for them to do their thing and let you do yours.

Getting a Lemon Law attorney is pretty low on the list, if you even knew there was such a thing. But it does happen and it is going to continue to happen. This is an unfortunate fact of life, particularly in a society that loves its automobiles.

Automobiles are more than essential to our daily lives; they are at the very heart of our economy. This is big business at its biggest. Even car dealerships are becoming big businesses.
It is an unfortunate axiom in business that when the going gets tough you cut departmental budgets.

Two departments that are always first up on the block are training and quality. Common sense tells us that these are the absolute last places to make cuts. It would make far more sense to go to every department and arbitrarily remove two layers of management. People who are dumping their work on others, creating little kingdoms whose measure of success is number of staff, would be forced to produce with fewer people stumbling all over each other. Streamlining management would speed the flow of work through the organization exponentially. It is sad that common sense is so seldom applied.

Untrained workers are a liability. This is fact. To allow them to continue to be untrained or intentionally withhold training to enhance the dealership’s bottom line, is worse than ignorant, it borders on the criminal.

Out there at the dealership, we are at the mercy of the people who work on our car. In the world of modern auto mechanics – we call them technicians now – lack of training is the source of astonishing inefficiencies, lost and or totally infuriated customers, major warranty costs for manufacturers and occasionally, loss of life.

If you are saying, “it can’t be that bad.” Think again. The need for well-trained auto mechanics, or technicians, if you prefer, is a national problem and it isn’t getting better despite auto mechanic schools springing up in every town and city.

More in the common sense department: Thousands of Lemon vehicles are replaced or refunded every year. Many of these cars had problems so complex that the technicians at the dealership couldn’t correctly diagnose and repair them. You imagine that because it is a large dealership, there must be people trained to repair what they sell. This assumption is as defective as the cars they cannot repair. The manufacturer must shoulder part of the problem to be sure. It is, after all, their responsibility to ensure that their dealerships personnel receive training on each new model car.
he need for auto mechanics is so desperate in some parts of the country, dealerships offer auto mechanics who are tech school graduates, substantial signing bonuses, like a high school baseball pitcher phenon from Bakersfield. Admittedly it isn’t in the millions. Large car dealerships will happily pay the tuition of technical school students as long as they can get them when they graduate. It’s a complex problem.

Here are some of the key factors that add to this complexity:

– Older mechanics are leaving the industry to take up other work. It’s just too hard to stay trained, to keep up.

– The pressures of working in a modern dealership begin to outweigh the benefits, especially when any technician with an ounce of decency finds his integrity being compromised at every turn.

– The equipment to service the modern automobile is incredibly expensive. A modern diagnostic machine may cost $20,000 or more, and keep in mind this machine will only work with one, or at best, a few model vehicles. Every day, all across the United States, independent auto repair shops are closing for the simple reason they can’t afford to purchase the equipment needed to work on the modern, computer-managed automobile. Even if they could afford the machines, they can’t find anyone trained in their use.

– Many older mechanics fear and loathe technology; they don’t want to work on anything that has a computer in it (that’s every new car manufactured for the past ten years).

– Technical school graduates in auto maintenance technology often switch to other jobs in computer fields that don’t require them to crawl around under vehicles: all that dirt and grease you know.

Technician retention is a serious problem. Because of the competition for a well-trained technician, dealerships must offer more money and benefits to keep these special employees. The turnover rate at dealerships is far higher than most equivalent sized organizations in other industries.

The flat rate pay system drives mechanics and dealerships alike to cheat. It is problem of altered time. The customer is getting the least possible time devoted to his or her problems, while the technician bills the maximum allowable hours. The technician is encouraged to do this by the dealership as a declared efficiency factor. It’s money for the dealership of course.

There is so much to learn with new models coming out every year the technicians can’t keep up. And now it isn’t just mechanical systems, it is also software and the electronic integration of all the automobiles electro-mechanical systems. Somewhere along the way this work went from blue-collar to white collar, from grease to pocket protector geek. But, Mothers and Dads aren’t encouraging their sons and daughters to go into the automotive maintenance field because they still think it is a low level job. It’s a shame really, as it can pay quite well and it is a profession requiring a high degree of knowleddge.

Dealerships cut training hours the minute the bottom line looks as if it is in trouble.

Considering all these factors, it is surprising anyone would want to enter the industry at all. The profession of automobile repair technician has become a white-collar job in a blue-collar world. Here’s another factor, which may seem more opinion that fact. The typical auto mechanic or technician doesn’t get much respect. For a variety of reasons auto mechanics are not held in high repute, professionally. The average car owner when talking about his or her mechanic is a skeptic: suspicious, fearful and ready to do violence. The average citizen speaks of his mechanic in terms usually reserved for politicians and perverts. This response is both unfair and inaccurate. It is definitely emotional.

There is a reason for this. Joe Citizen’s reaction to his mechanic is not simply bad judgment or perversity. People react to events in direct proportion to their affect on survival. How important is a car to your survival? In Los Angeles, it is as important as food. How well the car works absolutely affects quality of life. There’s a lot of emotion associated with survival.

These attitudes are not entirely unwarranted. Remember how you felt when you bought your first new car? There was excitement, the pleasure of having done an adult thing, made and saved enough money to make one of the largest purchases an American can make. And the satisfaction of owning a new car: “New”! This is very special indeed.

As car owners, we have no way of knowing that the technician working on our car was never trained on the vehicle’s electronic system. The flat-rate mechanics pay system encourages the technician to work as fast as possible, not as well as possible. The following quote has really meaning here.

“People forget how fast you did a job–but they remember how well you did it.” — Anonymous

The service writer doesn’t verify the skills of the technician he or she assigns to do the work. So when the Electronic Control System computer fails through poor design, or a software fault, and the technician changes out some other component, like the emission control valve, the owner leaves thinking everything is all right. Then before the owner gets home, the vehicle manifests the same problem. This is called “betrayal after trust”, and nothing is more likely to enrage a buyer. When the owner looks around for someone to abuse, shoot, whatever the level of his anger demands, and naturally he focuses on the technician. Training is not something one does because it looks good in an advertisement.

“If we deliver on time, but the product has defects, we have not delivered on time.” Philip Crosby Let’s Talk Quality, 1989

What will we get from the untrained technician/mechanic? We get the car back but it isn’t fixed. If this continues, it is a betrayal of our trust, plain and simple. It certainly wouldn’t be out of line for the consumer to ask about the training of the technician who works on our car. We’d want to know if the doctor cutting holes in our body were trained. Keep in mind that a defective lemon vehicle might put unrepairable holes in your body.

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