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Article: Mechanic For Life -- Ya start on the lube rack, then top mechanic, then your own shop... yep... You're a Mechanic For LifeBy Gonzo
Mechanic for Life
A lot of us mechanics may not have started out with the ambitions of being one. It’s just how things worked out. You might have started out with a college education or military background, and it turned out to be something that didn’t suit you at all. Others might have grown up in the business and were handling wrenches long before they were out of diapers. Still others started by fixing their own car, because they couldn’t afford to pay someone else to do it, and found it was something that suited them more than an office cubicle. Whatever the method that got you into the business, you’re probably hooked. Most likely, just like me, you’re a mechanic for life now.
I’ve been turning wrenches for as long as I can remember. Maybe not always for a paycheck, but no matter what I was doing there always seemed to be a wrench close by. Eventually, all that tinkering led to a chance to be a mechanic at a real shop. Actual diagnostics took a lot longer to learn, but it’s fair to say most all of us started off doing minor repairs or on the lube rack. Back when I started, my diagnostic skills and tools weren’t all that special. Usually nothing more more than a rubber hose held up to my ear to listen for knocks or taps, or whatever pieces of equipment the repair shop had on hand. It took time to learn how to diagnose a problem correctly, but even then, I was hooked. I couldn’t get enough of those mechanical marvels that travel up and down the highway.
Tools and techniques have changed over the years, and every mechanic has had to change with each new technical innovation. These days, the new technology seems to change even faster than a person can imagine. It used to be the hand tools that changed as rapidly as the new models were introduced, now it’s the laptop requirements and the software that are constantly changing more than the hand tools.
I’m seeing components such as the power steering pump, water pump and even the air conditioning compressors slowly being replaced by electronics. I’ve got a lifetime of tools and techniques I’ve learned to take care of all those fluids, belts, and hoses, as well as how to replace all those components. But, being a mechanic for life you have to expect changes like that. I’ve got drawers full of specialty sockets for timing gears, distributors and that odd looking soup bowl for removing those Northstar water pumps. Now, they’re just another one of those tools that will end up in a lower corner of the tool box along with an ever increasing pile of outdated scanners that are gathering dust.
For me, I’m still amazed at how many tools and techniques for repairing cars I’ve used for so many years are now just a lifetime of memories. The computers and data lines have taken over the automotive world, and the state-of-the-art electronics can be overwhelming to anyone unfamiliar with the modern car. Making a lifelong career as a mechanic means you’ll experience a lot of these changes in your tools, as well as the cars.
It is a new and different automotive world than ever before, but even with all these changes, and the years that I’ve been at this, I’m still amazed and in awe of the mechanical wonders we drive down the road. It’s that fascination of searching for a problem, the latest technology, and the mechanical nature of the modern automobile that gets to a person whose life revolves around maintaining them.
With all these changes it takes years to get familiar with the systems and to actually get good at this job. You’ll make a few mistakes, a few discoveries, but all in all, you’ll learn from them both. This learning process goes along with my favorite saying, “Experience comes from yesterday’s mistakes. Knowledge comes from not making the same mistake tomorrow.” That says it all. Then, you might branch out of the service bay into other forms of mechanic work. Maybe as a service writer, working in the parts department, maybe owning and running your own shop, or perhaps as an instructor bringing up the next generation of mechanics. Deep down we’re all still a mechanic just in a different way.
No matter what direction your future holds, you’re still a mechanic for life, and that’s just the way we like it.
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By Joe Marconi
Even after 35 years in business, I am still looking for that one day when things go smoothly. Yesterday, Friday, everything was going fine. We were finished up a few big jobs, the schedule was filling up for next week, the weather was absolutely beautiful and everyone (including myself), was in a good mood.
Then it happened; The Friday afternoon nightmare. Just as the clock hit 5 o’clock, things began to fall apart. A brake job, just completed, had to be redone due to defective brake rotors. A BMW which was supposed to have been checked out for safety concerns now has a brake warning light on that was not discovered earlier. And the customer was told that “Everything was ok.” There was still one more car that needed a wheel alignment. With most of my techs leaving for the day, I blew up. “Hey, this 5 o’clock drop your tools and run has to stop”, I said.
I was upset, but was I right to say what I said? What I am about to tell you is not an excuse, but it needs to be said. As a shop owner for 35 years and someone working in the auto repair industry for more than 40 years, I have been through more bad days than I care to remember. I do try to be positive. In fact, I preach this to others. But, sometimes, even the preacher sins.
This morning I am sitting here typing away thinking about my day. It’s Saturday and my wife and I are spending the day with my daughter and future son-in-law visiting wedding venues.
So, when I really think about, yesterday may have been a bad day at the shop. But today is a great day in my life.
Lesson: put things in perspective and judge your life by the good things in your life, not the bad stuff that’s part of running an auto repair business.
Let’s hope I can take my own advice.
Top Ten Pet Peeves
Every day at the repair shop there’s another challenge to overcome. When things go smoothly the day glides by without notice. One day passes to the next, so on and so on. But, there are those occasions when one of life’s little obstinate reminders comes along to let you know that every day can’t be perfect. Usually, just to irk even the best mechanic off for no reason at all, except to be a royal inconvenience. You know, it’s those daily activities and tasks that create their own obstacles just to rub your wrenches the wrong way. They make ya wanna flip your pressure gauges into the next service bay.
I know for a fact that there’s not enough morning coffee to ease the frustration when you are in the midst of working all day and some little insignificant problem comes along that isn’t part of the big picture you’re trying to solve. It just adds to the challenge of the day. You’ve already got to deal with the cars, the owners, the tools, the weather, and the usual soap opera stuff in the shop. Now ya gotta throw this into the mix. It’s just one of those tasks that shouldn’t be an issue but certainly can add to a tension headache and a darn good chance for a swift kick to the offending item. Hey, let’s face it, nothing’s perfect, but it sure would be nice when the simple things in the shop just stayed simple. Yea… like that’s going to happen.
Here’s a list of my top ten pet peeves of the auto shop.
10# - You drive a car onto the lift, set 3 of the 4 legs, but the last one won’t line up or get past the tire, unless you hop back in the car and move it just a bit more. (I’ve figured it out… 9 out of 10 cars don’t fit the first time. So, 1 out of 10 cars is going to give me fits in a different way.)
9# - How come the air hose is always 6 inches too short to reach that last bolt? (It doesn’t matter how much extra hose you sling off the reel, it’s still 6 inches short.)
8# - Tool borrowers who borrow tools and don’t bring them back. Tool borrowers who bring them back…broken. Tool borrowers who don’t wipe the grease off of my tools after they’re done with them. (Ok…in general… “tool borrowers”.)
7# - Small cars with gym equipment, boxes full of random stuff, and or a pile of clothes behind the driver’s seat. When I try to move the seat back, so I can drive it into the shop … it won’t move….! (I don’t think I can slip between the wheel and the seat in some of these cars, even if I went on a diet… ain’t enough room, people! ! ! )
6# - Pocket screwdrivers with extra strong magnets on the tip. Magnets are good, but not when you lean over an engine and the screwdriver attaches itself to the nearest piece of metal… every time! (The last one that did this is in my tool box… safely away from being the next projectile across the shop.)
5# - The last guy to use the oil recovery tank filled it up with the last oil change, and didn’t bother to empty it. (There’s a price on that guy’s head. He don’t know it, but he’s a marked man….)
4# - Service writers who don’t ask questions, but will write down anything the customer tells them, even if it makes absolutely no sense at all. “The car sounds like a ballerina with a sore foot.” This is NOT a good explanation of a faulty suspension component! (Let’s face it, I ain’t no ballerina, haven’t a clue what it would be like to have a sore foot as one.)
3# - Drop a car off, explain (in over abundant detail) about the problem they are having, but fail to mention the outside door handle is broken, and that I have to crawl in from the passenger side. (So, you want me to perform some Olympic gymnastics feat to fix your car? ‘Fraid not… fix the fX%#& door!)
2# - You ask if I’m a mechanic, then proceed to tell me how brilliant you are at my profession. Later on in the conversation I find out the cars you’ve worked on are all for relatives of yours… most of which don’t speak to you anymore after you’ve done your “magic” under the hood. (Oh I know, everybody is a mechanic. Might as well fess up… but I don’t need to brag about what I do… my work speaks for itself.)
1# - Engineered disasters, poor designs, and unbelievably impossible to get to bolts or components that only an idiot would have designed that way in the first place. Then show zero labor time to remove said part, which only makes it worse when I bid the job out to what it “really” is going to take. Then… as usual… the customer calls another shop, who uses the book time (only) never having done this particular job before, and ends up with the repair. Then, a few days later the same car is back with “other” problems related to somebody trying to get to those hard to reach bolts or components and has damaged something along the way. AND, of course… it’s all my fault don’t ya know………… (The battle was lost even before I started. Should’ve been a ballerina…)
Bonus Pet Peeve
Start an electrical short trace from one end of a circuit and 9 chances out of 10 the problem is on the opposite end. And it doesn’t matter if you try to “out think” it by starting on the other end … it’s still going to be on the opposite end. (Murphy’s Law… it’s a done fact…)
I think I should have started this list as the top 100 instead of the top ten, because there’s a lot more of them out there. It’s just the kind of thing that makes ya wanna split your sockets sometimes. I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s those little things that accumulate as the day goes by that makes ya wanna snap off your Snap On ratchets. The mere thought of another half-cracked-silly issue that shouldn’t be an issue showing up makes locking up the tool box and try it all again tomorrow rather tempting. But, you know you’ll stick it out, you’ll get it done, grumble a bit of course, and as anybody in the business will tell you… it’s just another day and a part of this crazy world of auto repair.
Yep, it’s just another one of those quirks that life throws at you now and then. Best thing to do is to shake it all off and deal with it. Go on about your merry way, and try to keep from bending another pry bar into a pretzel. Tomorrow’s another day. Yes, there’s always a tomorrow… and I’m sure there will always be another pet peeve just waiting to be a part of your productive day. Happy wrenchin’!
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It’s early in the morning, time to get ready for work, the morning breakfast and the obligatory cup of coffee are down the hatch, dogs fed, paper picked up, time to go. You make your way to the car, hop in and turn the key…crank, crank, crank… the whirl of the starter motor is all you hear. What now? What a way to start the morning. Your knowledge of cars goes about as far as the key in the ignition and where to put the fuel in. Panic sets in. It’s one of the many frustrations of modern life that has just become a part of your morning.
In your panic mode you can picture all of your plans for the day are going to be ruined. Immediately you start dialing the phone. First you call the boss and tell him you’re having car problems, then a call to the guy in the next cubicle to see if he can give you a ride to work. Next you call the wife and tell her the good news. Of course, she reminds you that you’re supposed pick the kids up from school and to take them to soccer practice, and you’re supposed to pick up your suit from the dry cleaners on the way home today. Today is not your day, and the frustrations just keeps piling up. All because the car wouldn’t start.
The first tow company you called is backed up with other calls, so you try the next one. They can make it in about an hour. Then you finally make the call to the repair shop. They’re backed up too; they can’t get to it until later today or possibly tomorrow. Your voice starts to show signs of frustration as you talk to the service writer. (Believe me, the service writer can tell.) Then in a fit of desperation you ask the service writer, “Is there anybody else who can get to it quicker?” The service writer hesitates for a moment, gathers his thoughts and says, “I’m sure there is sir, but let me see what I can do about getting you into the shop a little quicker, but no guarantees.”
You’re first lucky break of the day. He’s going to try to squeeze you in. Ok, things are looking up for a change. Your frustration level drops a notch, but not by much, you still have to figure out what to do about soccer practice, the dry cleaning, and how much is this all going to cost. At least your ride showed up to take you to work… work, I almost forgot… gotta go.
You’ve made it into the office, but you’re still worried the repair shop won’t get to your car soon enough. Even though it’s only been an hour or two, and for some reason the original conversation with the service writer about the possibilities of squeezing you in were slim seems to have slipped your mind. You figure now is a good time to call them, and see what they found out about the car.
The service writer you spoke to earlier doesn’t answer the phone this time, but a different one instead. Your frustration leads you to believe you need to go through the entire explanation of the problem all over again, even though the guy on the other end of the phone said it wasn’t necessary, because he has your work order in front of him with everything you told the previous service writer. The service writer tries to explain to you that the car has just arrived, and it will be a bit longer before they can make room in the shop for it, but your stress level has almost reached its maximum. The frustration keeps mounting as you plead with the service writer to get your car in as soon as possible, which only puts him under even more of a strain than he was before you called. Mainly, because you fail to realize… you’re not the only one whose car isn’t running.
The two service writers converse, and decide to push this one through the shop a bit quicker. Now the frustration has passed from the customer, to the service writer, and then ultimately to the mechanic. The service writer taps the mechanic on the shoulder, who is busy reading some scanner information on another problem car. The service writer says, “Hey Hank, can ya put that stuff down for now? I’ve got a rush job for ya.” The service writer stands over the tech, nervously tapping the work order into his open palm as the mechanic mumbles something under his breath, and slowly puts the scanner down and takes a look at the work order.
“Yea, fine, leave the work order with me, and log me in on it. I’ll get off of this one and start on it,” the mechanic tells him as he writes down a few reminder notes as to where he left off on the car he’s currently working on. The mechanic then heads out to the lot with the keys and hops into his new “rush” job for the day. He turns the key, VROOM the engine starts. More under his breath comments come to the surface. The mechanic drops it into drive and pulls it into the service bay. After a few regular checks, codes, fuel pressure, gas level, battery connections, etc… the results are… “Unknown failure. Cannot duplicate the no start condition at this time. Advise the customer that we can either keep the car for a few days, and try it off and on, or they can keep track of it and let us know.”
Now the mechanic is frustrated. Pulled off of a job that has a legitimate no start condition to an intermittent “rush” job that doesn’t seem to have one. Now the frustration starts back up the chain, from the mechanic, back to the service writer, and of course, ultimately back to the customer.
The car is started periodically all day long, up until the time the customer comes to pick it up. Frustrated, angry at the situation, and more than a little upset that the shop couldn’t find the problem the disappointed customer drives off. The next morning the service writer calls the customer to see how things are going. “It started just fine this morning,” the customer tells him. “Great,” said the service writer, “I’ll check in with you for the next couple of days and see how it’s going.”
Finally, it wouldn’t restart, and stayed that way long enough to get it checked out. An intermittent fuel pump and relay was the problem. Nearly three weeks after it all began, the frustration finally ended for everyone. This fast paced, modern world we live in can be frustrating when all these modern conveniences fail to cooperate. Dealing with the stress of it all is different at each level, and it’s hard not to get frustrated over such things. But, it sure would be nice if we could.
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By Joe Marconi
[Article written earlier than posted time, link at the bottom to original source]
We all have had that week from hell. You know, the one week that makes you ask yourself why in the world you ever got into this business in the first place. The week that makes you doubt yourself, your customers and the people around you. And as you push through the week, every turn you make you find another fire to put out, another bounced check to worry about, another comeback that needs to be done over again, on and on and on. By Wednesday you say to yourself, it must get better, it cant get worse. Well, guess what? It can.
For me, my recent week from hell happened this past summer. I came in on Monday morning in the second week of July to find that my service manager was sick and would probably be out until Thursday. I also learned that one of my top techs got into a motor cycle accident over the weekend and was seriously injured, with no information about his return to work. It was 6:45am and little did I know, this was just the beginning, and it was about to get worse.
A Subaru we serviced a few months ago was towed in over the weekend with a seized engine and the owner was blaming us for not putting oil in the engine. He was demanding we pay for a new engine because in his mind, its our fault. I gathered my crew together a little before 8am and told them this was going to be a very challenging week. I also told everyone to be positive, work together and we will get through this.
On Tuesday my air compressor caught on fire. The compressor, only a little over two years old, apparently had a defect in the wiring which caused a short and fried the motor. We were one month over the warranty and I had to eat the cost for a new compressor motor.
On the ride into work on Wednesday I called my shop foreman and asked if it was safe to come in. I was joking, but he wasnt laughing. There was silence on the phone and I asked, What happened now? He told me that the transmission we installed in the Dodge Van last Friday was towed in overnight; the transmission doesnt even move, he said. He also told me that there was a note from a very unhappy customer that said she needed the van back ASAP! Then he told me that someone threw a rock through the front window and that the Police are waiting for me. I wanted to turn my truck around a go to the hills and hide. Aside from these new issues, we were getting behind in our work as the problems kept mounting. Somehow, we made it through the rest of the day.
Thursday morning started out ok. My Manager was back and we were well into the process of getting all the issues settled. The compressor motor was due to arrive that day. Luckily we had an old back up compressor which kept us going. The glass company was there installing a new window. Things were looking better, I thought. But, I was wrong. That morning we received the wrong tire shipment, and all the tire sales for that day had to be reordered. We lost electric power from a downed pole around the corner at 10:45am. We did what we could, but we all know how dependent we are with computers, lifts, phones and other equipment. The power came back late that afternoon and we all stayed late into the night to catch up. The push to get the work done was draining everyone, including myself. I could sense despair setting in as the morale in the shop was suffering.
I spent the better part of Friday morning dealing with the customer of the seized Subaru engine. The truth is, there was oil in the engine, but low about 2 quarts and he couldnt read any oil on the dip stick. According to our records he was 5,000 miles over his scheduled oil service. We only serviced his car once and as I questioned him, I realized he didnt take care of the car as he should, often going over the recommended interval for an oil change. I asked him if there were any lights on the dash before the engine seized. After a short pause, he admitted that the oil light and check engine light had been on the day the engine seized. Knowing the truth put me in a better position to deal with the problem. He was still angry and wanted to know what I was going to do because we were the last to touch the car, but the facts were the facts and I stood my ground.
By Friday afternoon I was mentally exhausted and was looking forward for the week to come to an end. About 3:30 that afternoon, a long time customer came in for service on her car. I walked over to her to say hello and she started to cry. I sat down in the waiting area with her and asked if there was something I could do for her. She told me that her daughter, 41 years old, just passed away from cancer. She left two young children and a husband behind. In an instant, all the problems that happened the past week took on a different meaning; all of the worry that I had the past few days suddenly vanished. This woman had real issues to deal with; issues about family and life, and in the end, are the only things that really matter.
I sat with her until her car was finished and listened as she spoke about her daughter and family. When her car was complete I walked her out to her car. As I walked back to the office, I started to put things in perspective and realized that all the trouble that had happened in the last 5 days seemed a lot less important.
As shop owners, we face adversity every day. At times I feel we are being tested. Sometimes, things appear to be too tough to bear. Sometimes, just sometimes, the problems we face are just what we need to remind us that things could be a lot worse. For me, I learned a valuable lesson about life. I learned to appreciate the things that really matter in my life and not concern myself about the things that are only part of life, not what life is all about.
Tomorrow is Monday, and I dont know what the auto repair world has in store for me. It may be hell or it may be paradise. But whatever happens, Im ready for it.
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