What Ya Know
It’s rather hard for me to remember a time when I didn’t know a whole lot about cars. Of course, there certainly was… had to be. It’s not like I was born with a wrench and a test light in each hand. Like a lot of mechanics who started long before me, most everything you know about this job was from experience and handed down knowledge from the older generations of techs. There weren’t a lot tech schools back then, so it really was OJT for the most part. You started as a kid pumping gas at the local gas station, and hung around under the lifts watching what the mechanics were doing. Eventually one of them would hand you a wrench and tell you to take something apart. And, as they say… the rest is history.
I don’t see a lot of summertime gas pumping jobs anymore, or much of a chance to hang around at the local garage as I did when I was a kid, so getting a start in this field is a little different than in the past. Even though on the job training is still just as important as it was so many years ago, now most of the training is through technical schools. They’ll start you off with the basic fundamentals, and then bring you up to speed to the service requirements and skills needed on today’s cars. The likelihood of jumping straight out of high school into a good paying line tech job just doesn’t happen without some background in it first. Technical school training, training conventions, or on the job training is the best methods I can think of.
Even with all of that, when you do land that lucrative job you still have a lot to learn. Well, actually the learning never ends. New procedures, new products… new…new…new, always something new. But what about the old stuff that creeps into your service bay from time to time? That’s where a different knowledge source is needed. Who would know about a 30 year old carburetor system or vacuum controlled HVAC? I know who, the senior technician. They’ve seen it, done it, turned that bolt, and know what it takes.
Ever since I was the young gun in the repair shop the scuttlebutt talk was always about how there is a shortage of skilled technicians out there. Some say it’s a lack of interest, the working conditions, the pay, or it could be the stereotypical “mechanic” that the high school guidance counselor described, while he was pushing you to go to college rather than a trade school. (At least that’s the way it was when I was in high school.)
I get quite a chuckle out of listening to some of the younger techs that I run across at trade shows, schools, or by email. They have a different type of “smart” about them. They’ve got a very modern approach to the automotive diagnostic process, with web based information, computer testing, and the like.
Being a skilled mechanic/technician then, and even more today, isn’t something to be taking lightly. Not everyone is cut out to be in it or stay in it, and the ones who do should be commended. It’s more than nuts and bolts, it’s computers systems, data lines, and sophisticated state of the art electronics. It truly is a knack; it’s a talent, some got it…some don’t.
There’s so much to know in this field compared to just a few decades ago that a lot of technical schools try to focus on what is on the road today vs. what used to be on the road. There just isn’t enough class time available to cover all of that. So, a lot of those old carburetor systems have fallen into the history books.
Besides, a lot of those tweaks and little fudges that were needed on those bygone car systems are handled with computer software these days, such as dwell and timing, fuel enrichment, and transmission shifting. Each decade of cars has their own set of weirdness to them. It’s something you had to experience, and experience is what the older tech generally has more of.
Just the other day I received an email from a young tech who was working on a 70’ model GM that was belching gobs of smoke out the tail pipe. He was very thorough with his diagnostics, and had all the facts and figures in his email. (He really did a nice job.) I asked him if it was an automatic, and if so, pull the modulator off the transmission, and see if there was any fluid in the vacuum hose. He did, and sure enough there was. If he kept digging around, I’m sure he would have found it in an old service manual, but after all the years I’ve put under a hood… I knew what it was just by the way he explained it. It’s one of those things that isn’t on the younger techs’ radar to check, mainly because that type of problem went away with the introduction of the electronic transmission.
That’s the kind of thing I’m referring to. Before the advent of the electronic age, most car repairs and adjustments were done with hand tools and timing lights. Each successive generation of mechanics, before my time and certainly after, have had to deal with their own variety of different problems than the next generation.
It’s a different kind of smart these days for sure. I still get a kick out of listening to the younger generation techs talking about how they don’t understand a carburetor, or how we even got those things to work. You’re right, and it was definitely a different time back then, a completely different world than we live in today.
I’m very glad to see the interest these students have at several of these technical schools I’ve visited. With a little guidance and some time under the hood these students will be tomorrow’s exceptional technicians. They really are trying to put the best possible mechanic into the work force. The days of starting on the lube rack and working your way up to top tech may still be possible. Even then some guys figured out it wasn’t for them, but before these young guns make it through tech school, they’ll know whether or not is was the right career choice. As an old coach use to tell me, “Practice doesn’t make you perfect. Perfect practice does.” And, there’s no doubt starting off on the right foot at a school is a whole lot better than learning some bad traits.
I’d still pay attention to those old guys in the shop. They’ve been at it a long time; they know things about using certain tools, or short cuts that only comes with a lot of time under the hood. Some of which just can’t be taught out of a text book. Only years and years of turning a wrench does that.
They already know, and then you’ll know.