New Horizons in the Automotive Industry

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For the person who brings the right talents to automotive repair, the field is wide open. More and more people are needed to keep America rolling.

The automotive industry is not limited to cars. Almost anything that has an engine and moves is part of the industry. Technicians are needed to keep all of the equipment running, and that includes about 193 million cars, trucks, and buses. That's not counting the many more millions of off-highway vehicles like farm tractors, road-building equipment, and other mechanized equipment- forklifts, bulldozers, motorcycles, military machines, and many, many more.

Most of the companies performing automotive service are small. They are part of the backbone businesses that make the United States the great nation of free enterprise that it is.



Transportation is an essential part of this country's basic health and well-being, but we tend to forget how vital it is to all of us. Every year in America we roll up almost two trillion miles. Motor vehicles carry people, freight, food and fire and construction equipment from one place to another. We seldom stop even to think about it, because it is so woven into the fabric of American life We consider even less often the huge industry that keeps everything moving.

Let something break down, however, and we expect almost immediate repairs. One of the most devastating phrases a motorist can hear is "you'll have to leave it overnight." The automotive industry is responsible for getting the parts and tools to the right place at the right time, with the right people to make the right repairs.

We demand quick and proper repairs for our vehicles and we deserve as much when we part with our money. The person doing the job must be well trained, have the right tools and equipment, and be conscientious enough to do the job right the first time. An auto repair mechanic, or technician, is an important and valuable commodity and certainly deserves our respect.

NO MORE TUNE-UPS

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. Bui 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.

SPECIALTY SHOP vs. GENERAL SHOP

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 shop where the motorist can leave the car and have all the necessary repairs don 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 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 decision.

BRIGHT FUTURE

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.

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 Aftermarket 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. Meanwhile, "for the next couple of decades, it is expected by most that petroleum-based fuels will continue to be the primary transportation fuels," wrote Kevin Green, a researcher in the Transportation Strategic Planning and Analysis Office at the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center.
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