TIME WAS WHEN AUTO REPAIR WORK WAS A CRAP-shoot. U.S. automobile consumers brought their vehicles to a repair shop for service. It was not a case of the hapless consumer getting screwed. Rather it was how extensive the screwing would be.

The media had a field day reporting tales of old ladies getting ripped-off by automobile repairers (including new car dealers) while politically motivated consumer advocates licked their chops, looking for businesses to bite. Government regulations for vehicle repairs was not far off if the industry didn't clean up its act. It was a challenge for car dealers to remove themselves from the traditional repair shop image and bring credibility to their service departments.

It was a tough challenge for a couple of reasons:

  1. The poor quality of domestic new vehicles laid a heavy burden on the dealership service personnel just to keep the Detroit behemoths on the road.

  2. The pay plans for many service technicians gave them a percentage of the labor charge, an incentive to steal from the factory warranty as well as the dealership customers and used car reconditioning departments. It was often said, “One's best mechanics were not the largest money producers because the big money-makers' expertise lay in using the pricing pencil, not auto repair tools.”

I have first hand knowledge of big money producers being our technically worst repairers. Workmanship pride and accountability were the two most glaring omissions from the auto repair business. How could accountability and respect be established so that all consumers could reach a comfort level with a automobile repair facility?

It was through certifying service technicians.

It wasn't easy launching such a badly needed program. Certification standards needed to be set and a process developed so that candidates got the necessary knowledge and experience to get certified.

Passing specific tests would qualify them as certified technicians in a particular field (i.e transmission, gas and diesel engine overhaul, electrical components).

Today 415,000 certified professionals work in auto service facilities.

Qualifying tests are conducted twice a year at over 700 locations around the country and are administered by the testing company ACT of Princeton, NJ. These tests are no cinch. A third of test-takers fail.

ASE certified professionals usually wear blue and white ASE insignia and carry credentials listing their exact area of expertise.

Enterprising employers often display these credentials in customer waiting areas and provide an incentive for certification by financially rewarding certified technicians with increased flat rate hourly rates.

Information on subsequent tests may be obtained by contacting the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE); phone: 703-713 3800, fax: 703-713-3918. Testing is done periodically.

Certain individual efforts stand out in every challenge to enhance the pride and accountability of the U.S. automobile industry. In this case it was Jack Pohanka, an NADA director and subsequent NADA president from Marlow Heights, MD. At that time, I was a fellow director from Massachusetts.

I remember an NADA board meeting where Jack, in cooperation with the American Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association, successfully pitched for funds to finance a feasibility study for certifying technicians. That ultimately brought automobile repair to its current level of excellence, pride, and accountability.

If there was a benefactor to America's almost half-million certified automobile mechanics it's Jack Pohanka. He personally guided the certification program through its early years and spent countless hours refining it.

His determination and reputation counteracted any serious objections to this dramatic change for the better in America's automobile service industry.

Nat Shulman was owner of Best Chevrolet in Hingham, MA for many years.