Knowledge and Flexibility of a Technician

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It has been the hallmark of the good technician to keep abreast of changing technologies. He or she has adapted from steam to spark ignition and to electronic ignition controlled by black boxes. The technician has no choice but to keep learning and the topnotch technician will keep up by adapting to whatever technology comes along.


As mentioned above, the trend is toward specialization in the repair field. If we could look into a crystal ball, we might find that the independent, general mechanic is a dying breed. Already we see that there are many specialization shops in existence muffler shops, tune-up shops, transmission shops, and alignment shops. According to Gene Gardner, the 1996 president of the Automotive Service Industry Association, "The growth in auto electronics has significantly altered the technical requirements of the individuals who will service these high-tech machines. What this means is that by the turn of the century, those technicians who specialize in learning and understanding these heavily computerized vehicles will be able to diagnose, service, and repair at a level that separates them from others."

Although electronics ranks as a major 1990s change, other trends are also clear. Since the 1970s and 1980s, there has been considerable downsizing of cars, and as a result, there has been an increase in the number of specialty tools needed to repair them. Engines are smaller, transmissions and brake systems are smaller, and engines are being installed transversely in order to power front wheel drive cars.

As the vehicles and vehicle systems grow more complex and sophisticated, there is probably going to be a great deal more specialization. Any one person will be hard pressed to understand adequately all the systems and subsystems in the automobile. As mentioned earlier, there are so many engine functions on late model cars that are handled by electronic controls that there will be a need for specialists in this single area. The computer controls of today are only a fraction of what can, and probably will, be added in the future.


The dramatic increase in the number of small engines on the road will probably result in more engine failures. In the old trusty V-8, if one spark plug or valve was weak, there was not a significant problem. Only one-eighth of the performance was lost. But today, the four-cylinder engine is common. If the same spark plug or valve should fail, a full 25 percent of the performance is gone. Suddenly, it is a big problem.

In addition, most people are driving the smaller engines in the same way that they drove those gigantic gas guzzlers. They push them to the speed limit and beyond and expect them to do the job of a big block. Simple arithmetic tells us that a four-cylinder engine will spin about twice as fast, and make twice as many revolutions to cover the same distance at the same speed, as the V-8. The corollary to this is that a four-cylinder engine will probably wear out sooner. That translates into a need for more engine specialists. There will be more piston rings, more valves, and more camshafts to be replaced.

Along the same lines, the smaller wheels on the downsized cars will revolve more times to cover the same distance. The smaller brakes will have to do a bigger job. So there will be a need for more wheel service brake jobs, alignments, and wheel bearing replacements. The extension of this is that there may be a big opportunity for wheel service specialists.


Soon we will be seeing the end of the tune-up. It will be replaced by engine performance diagnosis and repair. The tune-up traditionally meant replacing the spark plugs, ignition points, and condenser. Today, there are no points and no condensers. The timing is electronically controlled on most vehicles. All the technician can do is check it and perhaps make an initial minor adjustment. But all of the electronic systems that control every function in the engine have to receive inputs from sensors located in such places as the exhaust, water jacket, and intake manifold. If a sensor is malfunctioning, the performance of the engine will be affected, since the computer will not have the necessary information to make a correction to the performance of the engine. Emissions are one of the factors that these devices are built to control. Another is improved fuel economy. The two, although somewhat opposed, must function hand in hand.

Sophisticated diagnostic instruments analyze the systems so the proper sensor or control can be repaired. This machinery costs a fortune. Only the specialist in engine performance can afford the equipment and then he or she will have to do many jobs to make the equipment pay for itself. The special tools and equipment will cost even more in the future.


All this talk of specialization does not mean that there will be only specialty shops to handle special problems. In fact, there will still be general shops where the motorist can leave the car and have all the necessary repairs done with one stop, but that shop will probably hire several different technicians, each of whom will specialize. As many as eight or ten specialists in different areas may be necessary. The technicians may be assisted by less experienced helpers who will do the labor. The assistant, or helper, will most likely be an apprentice who eventually will work his or her way into the post of diagnostician. The diagnostician will use specialized equipment to help determine the problem, but only he or she can interpret the data and make the final decisions.


At present there is an urgent need for more trained technicians. In the future, there will be even greater demand. There's room for as many as sixty to eighty thousand more technicians. As those in the field retire or are outpaced by the technology, there will be an even greater need for people to fill the void they leave.

Estimates from the Automotive Service Industries Association (ASIA) indicate that in 1950 there was one mechanic for every 73 cars and trucks. In 1970 there was one mechanic for every 130 vehicles. And, according to the auto repair task force report of the National Association of Attorneys General, in 1995 there was one technician for every 142 cars. According to the Automotive After market Industry Association (AAIA), "industry estimates put the optimum ratio at one technician for 87 cars and trucks and we're getting further away from that number with each passing year."

The cost of tools and training continues to escalate, and as such, there are going to be fewer people who can afford to be general automotive technicians. There will be more specialization, more opportunities, and more vehicles on the roads. There will continue to be a great need for skilled professionals who can service these vehicles. There will be more opportunities than people to fill them. Demand will be high and supply low. At least in theory, wages, fringe benefits, and respect will have to increase to attract new talent. For the person who enters the field today, opportunities are almost limitless. If he or she stays abreast of emerging technologies and automotive systems, the sky is the limit.

Beyond the internal combustion engine, there's a world of new technology. Technicians will have to follow these trends and anticipate where they'll lead. Will it be ethanol that replaces oil? Or will hydrogen fuel cells win the day? At this point it's not clear if a new type of engine will be called for. But it's almost certain that within the working lifetimes of today's technicians there'll be a major change; as oil supplies dwindle, new alternatives will be found. A reengineering of the automotive engine, when and if it happens, also would mean the reeducation of the technician workforce. You'll be able to watch these changes happen, and, we hope, be prepared to work with them.
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