Who Is Under the Hood?

Phil Ramsey
Tags: automotive

Sometime last year, according to the American Automobile Association (AAA), the number of registered vehicles in the United States passed 200 million.1

Looking at the photograph in this column, “From Under the Hood”, one could ask “who is the guy under the hood?” Good question, and the answer is . . . it’s not me. According to the National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) (formerly NIASE), there are more than 400,000 certified working professional mechanics in the auto, truck and fleet repair industries.2

That is approximately one certified mechanic for every 500 cars. There are many more working mechanics who are not certified who can do a good job in certain situations. But how do you choose the right person to work on your vehicle? Does he or she have experience and tools for the needed repair? In short, whom do you invite under your hood?

In previous columns, I described working in my father’s gas station in the 1950s. Cars were much simpler then. Few had air conditioning, power steering or power brakes. The average “gas jockey” could do most everything needed to keep a car on the road. The skills were learned on the job, and every well-equipped gas station provided the necessary tools for its employees. As long as cars were simple, this system worked well.

In the 1960s cars became more complicated. The gasoline stations gave way to convenience stores in the 1970s. As I began to get out of the gasoline business, the source of teenage apprentices dried up as minimum-wage and age-restriction laws hindered my ability to hire and train those still interested.

To combat a disappearing pool of the mechanically inclined, the industry is developing programs geared toward the next generation of young people with mechanical aptitude. Recently I participated in a radio talk show panel and learned how one auto dealership is sponsoring a high-school shop where students earn school credit while developing mechanical skills. This is a good way to attract younger mechanics into the profession.

But how do you get a professional, trusted mechanic under your hood, especially with the career mechanics (like me) approaching retirement and the new crop lacking experience?

In the mid-1970s, I took my first battery of certification exams from the ASE examining board. These voluntary tests were designed to identify competency in eight different areas of auto repair. Since 1972, the tests have expanded to include questions on trucks, parts specialists, paint and collision repair and others. The certification exams were important to me as a professional mechanic. They were the accreditation that enabled customers to distinguish me from other mechanics who just hung out a sign.

One mechanic and 500 cars. If you drive your car 20,000 miles per year as most do, then it needs service about five times a year. That is 2,500 service visits that one mechanic must handle each year, or about seven cars per day. This workload can’t be achieved if anything other than minimum service is required.

Home oil changes, servicing for minor repairs, and quick-change automotive businesses handle an increasing amount of a mechanic’s workload. But there is more required of auto mechanics than changing oil. Tires, brakes, alignment, struts, belts, hoses, water pumps, air conditioning and hydraulic repairs, electronic repairs, drive shafts, and many other components add to the demands made on the mechanic. So while you can help by taking your car to different shops for different services, it adds to your quest for a good mechanic.

In such a quest, I recommend finding a home base. There are service departments at dealerships and independent car repair shops throughout most towns. Search for a shop that has the blue seal, or ASE badge prominently displayed in its customer waiting area. Along with the badge, the certificates of the technicians working there should be displayed. A good shop should have at least one master mechanic, someone who has passed all eight areas of expertise. He will be the experienced craftsman and will teach other mechanics in the shop. Some dealers emphasize sales and care little for service. Independent repair shops survive by providing good service. The blue seal shows they are professional in their services; look for this seal as a beginning.

The shop environment is also important. I once excused my unclean shop floor with the proverb “there is no profit in a clean stable.” I have since changed my ways. Look for a clean shop where the tools are clean and well-maintained. A good shop will have specialized tools and its employees will be pleased that you are interested in their equipment. A demonstration is a chance for the mechanics to show off their tools and skills. If they are proud of their shop, they will be proud of the job they perform on your car.

General repair shops are the best home bases. But they may not address every repair your vehicle needs. For instance, I no longer do my own automatic transmission work or exhaust repair, but I know where to send my customers to find good mechanics who do.

Avoid choosing a shop based only on the lowest estimated cost. Most of the reputable shops in my area are within 10 percent of what the others are charging. The cheaper shops often lure a customer in for a “bait and switch,” or they are trying to buy business rather than earn it with good service.

The repair shop you choose as your home base should state a clear policy for authorizing repairs. It is best if the mechanic is willing to look at your problem, then quote you an estimated repair price. Be fair, and be prepared to pay a diagnostic fee whether you allow him to repair it or not. Often the repair is simple, such as changing an alternator or battery, and the customer prefers to do it himself. But he should be willing to pay a fee to determine which one needs to be changed.

A good shop should consult the customer for additional repairs over $50. Trust the mechanics to determine which repair is best for your car. Mechanics are people who repair broken things. Their job satisfaction depends on it.

There is a fine line between preventive maintenance and overselling. If your shop talks you out of a repair, advising that it is not necessary right now, your mechanic is doing you a favor. That shop deserves your patronage.

Many readers of Machinery Lubrication magazine are professional maintenance and repair people. Most of you take care of the repairs on your family vehicles. But don’t ignore your chosen mechanic. He knows as much about your car as you do about your own plant facilities or fleet.

Whom do you place under your hood? He or she should display some credentials, have a clean, well-equipped shop, be willing to give an estimate, and not have too many cars sitting on the lot. Mechanics fix things, not store them.

References

  1. American Automobile Association. www.csaa.com/home/
  2. www.asecert.org/subchannels/about_profile.cfm