It’s not rocket science that the automotive service industry needed to keep pace with burgeoning developments from auto-makers. And it still does this markedly, considering the amount of knowledge and skill needed to service vehicles multiplies exponentially every year. That’s all fine and good, but some shops want every little advantage over the other guys to show customers who’s really up to speed.
Thirty years is a good chunk of time. It’s enough time, if you think about it, to raise and send kids to university or pay off a household mortgage. It’s enough time to land an unmanned spacecraft on Mars (which actually is rocket science). And it’s enough time for the automotive industry to make mainstream what didn’t even exist 30 years ago – computerized engine management, ABS brakes, supplemental air bags and more. It’s also a generous time-span for a guy like John Sawatsky to evolve into the owner and operator of MSJ Automotive, a Windsor, Ontario repair facility. It contrasts his younger days as a kid tinkering and tooling around the streets of Windsor. in his Neanderthal 340-inch ’69 Dodge Charger, the likes of which could never hope to have any of the above-mentioned equipment.
At about that same time, the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, a State-side organization borne of a consortium of service industry groups and independent garages, gathered steam as the definitive resource for assuring competency in the industry south of the border. Formed in 1972, it’s more commonly known in the trade as ASE. The non-profit organization provides a buffet of different exams to certify trade professionals. That’s because in the U.S., there’s far less government intervention regulating the industry in terms of certifying and licensing professionals through apprenticeship programs. ASE’s aim, both then and now, says vice-president Tony Molla, is to help the motoring public discern between the proverbial wheat and chaff among garages and their technicians. Initially, ASE’s services weren’t directly available in Canada to Canadians.
“In a way, ASE has probably been up in Canada from the very beginning,” he says. “A lot of the testing came to happen in Canada because Canadian technicians along the border started coming south to take the tests on their own – it’s been self-perpetuating in that respect.”
Enter Sawatsky. MSJ Automotive is a large, ten-bay shop on the outskirts of Windsor that digests almost 800 repair orders monthly. He and five of his guys (he employs nine people overall) took various ASE exams at the University of Windsor last November for the first time. He heard about it through the Automotive Aftermarket Retailers of Ontario as well as SSGM and thought it’d be a worthwhile litmus test of how current he and his crew were.
“There’s no re-examination required in Ontario so really there isn’t much in the way of challenging you (on an on-going basis),” says the 43-year-old.
“We didn’t know what we were up against going into it but basically the questions all challenged you on day-to-day situations that you would face – they were very good and very realistic questions,” he says. The tests are multiple-choice with all answers being close but one being the most correct, similar to Ministry tests. “And how does it compare a technician’s C.Q. (certificate of qualification)? I’d say that these exams were as challenging, if not more, than that one ever was.” By his own altruism, Sawatsky forked over more than $1,000 (US), broken down into $26 for each tech to register including himself, $24 for each exam (four of them wrote two) and an additional $100 for promotional paraphernalia such and banners and signs.
“I’m sure a lot of guys would balk at the idea of going back every five years (the period each ASE certificate is good for) and that there’s the considerable expense involved because we already have licenses to maintain in Ontario,” Sawatsky says. Nor is he certain getting involved guarantees more traffic through his 14-year-old business. “I’m not sure we can look any better in front of our customers with (ASE) at this time,” he says.
Brian Holmes, automotive service division manager for CAA central Ontario says that many CAA-approved garages view ASE certification as a beneficial “add-on,” even though there’s no governmental obligation and no promises from consumers either. He’s been with the CAA since 1987.
“These places have said, ‘You know what? We just want to add that much more credibility by having an ASE crest on our sleeves.'” He also noted that there’s a benefit for licensed technicians who are no longer actually on the bench but who are still directly involved in the industry. “I’ve been a licensed technician since 1978 but I stopped pulling wrenches in early 1982. Am I outdated? Theory-wise, no. But from the hands-on aspect of it, yeah, I’m a little bit rusty,” he says.
Molla says that because of the type of organization it is, with only 50 staff headquartered in Leesburg, VA, little time, money and people-power are left over for self-promotion. “Our only funding comes from test fees, nothing else.”
“We’re not going to take any ads during the Super Bowl anytime soon,” he says, adding that ASE relies on repair facilities to spread the gospel.
Twenty-six-year-old Chris Langlios has been with MSJ Automotive for almost ten years and now stands among the 4,400 or so ASE-crested Canadians – a little more than ten per cent of the 435,000 certified people world-wide including Mexico and Brazil. Langlios says there wasn’t really much he could do by way of studying or preparing because the bulk of the questions deal with practical scenarios.
“Go in there expecting to get really technical questions. Don’t think it’s something you’re going to fly through – it’s not a cake-walk. For me, in comparison to the ministry and the emission (Drive Clean) certifying tests, this was by far the best test out of the three of them,” he says. He took two, including Automotive Electrical and Automotive Engine Performance. A quick search of some public libraries and on-line book retailers revealed some preparatory material is available. These books mimic the type and style of questions an exam-taker could face. Langlois says these could be helpful as long as the material is up-to-date. ASE holds exams in May and November. March 29 is the registration due date for the May exams. For anything ASE related, including how to register on-line, test catalogues and question samples, visit the website at www.asecert.org.
As of yet, there’s no crystal ball showing if ASE will catch on with consumers in Canada like it has in the U.S. It may take another 30 years. But for 90 minutes last November, Sawatsky learned to keep sharp in one important area, one that he learned a long time ago: “Once we went and actually got through the test(s), we realized it was, well, fun.”