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Square Peg Round Hole ----- Bad information means more work...


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Square Peg Round Hole


I’ve made a career out repair cars; it’s a great living full of all kinds of surprises and new adventures. It’s not a career for everyone but for those who have done it for as long as I have we’ve all seen the changes in the way we approach car repair. Our tools and techniques have evolved right alongside of the cars we service. But there is still one fundamental thing that hasn’t changed… a knowledgeable technician/mechanic who understands the complexities of the modern car and how to properly diagnose and repair them. That all starts with the good technical information.

Years ago performing repairs and diagnosing problems was done with the help of those oversize manuals. Some were bound, others not, but for the most part, it was still ink on paper. These manuals spent a lot of time on the edge of a fender and went through a lot of abuse before they were either replaced or taped back together. (Like a lot of mine are.) Every type of information, specifications, and procedures were between the covers of those manuals, and as time passed the volume of information kept growing, as well as the thickness of those manuals. When the PC (personal computer) became the norm so did the way we get our information. Most often it was offered on CD’s or floppy discs when they first came out. That wasn’t that long ago, but, these days everything has gone internet.


In the days of the paper manuals I would take a pencil and scratch notes on the margin of the pages or scribble another line between the words on a page so that I would have a reminder of a change or update for a certain procedure. After a while there were a lot of personal notes in those big heavy books. With the CD’s it wasn’t as easy… however, most of the CD’s were just a transcribed editions of those early books. So, whatever changes that I kept on the margins of those books weren’t part of the CD, which meant I would have to revert back to the old books on occasions.

With the internet services we have today, there is a notation section that I can jot my little cheat sheet information down and store it for later use. I still find some things that just don’t make any sense when I’m looking up some information though, just as it was with the book form there a times when even the great internet information is amiss, slightly off, incorrectly labeled, poorly explained, and… OK, OK, enough of the pleasantries … the truth of the matter is… it’s just flat wrong!

There’s a certain amount of frustration a mechanic goes through when looking up something like a fuse box for instance on a certain car or truck and you get to the “correct page” only to find out that it’s the wrong fuse box. Now you have to go back through, change the year or something and see if you can find a match to the fuse box you’re actually working on. It can be maddening at times trying to dig through the maze of information. Especially when things aren’t where they should be.

Another area that will put you into an early coronary or psycho ward is the component locator section. (You know, if the consumer knew how much time is spent just trying to locate some of these out of the way components they may take away from this experience a whole new appreciation of their mechanic.) I’ve got to admit a doctor only has two different models to work on, be it, some are large and some small…But, all the parts are (generally) in the same place…or at least they’re supposed to be. In a car, not a chance. Every year the manufacturers gotta move things around to accommodate either a new design or some other change. I’m never surprised when the locater tells me a part is on the left side of the glove box and it’s not. Then the chase is on, you find a wire that matches, maybe a relay that’s in the circuit you’re working on, or some clue that leads you to look elsewhere… finally you locate it under the center console and not behind the glove box. Yep, been there…done that. (Time to write a note about this one.)

It’s like trying to put the preverbal square peg in a round hole sometimes. The harder you try the harder it seems to get. Ya just have to be aware that sometimes that peg just doesn’t fit and it ain’t going to fit. You’re on your own to find that component, labor time, or procedure. It’s just another challenge in the automotive repair business that a lot of folks out there are not aware of. To me, it can be the most frustrating part of the job. I may know what the problem is by looking at the wiring diagram or from a scanner reading but when it comes down to getting to that ailing part and it’s not where it’s supposed be, I’ll guarantee it’s not a good time to ask me, “How’s it going?” Kinder words may have been spoken in the past… but not right about now!

Just the other day I got a 09 Hyundai in that had a bad alternator in it. With the aide of the wiring diagram, meters, and a quick scan I was able to determine the condition of the alternator. The next step was to get the thing out of the car. By the book it was only supposed to take a couple of hours… uh - huh… sure… sure it does. The only way to get it free from its encasement was to get the coolant fans out of the way.

I had to explain to the customer that the book time for the job was wrong before I even started. And, like most people who get an estimate from their mechanic that they aren’t agreeable with they start to call everyone else on their list of repair shops. Of course, everybody else has the same labor rate that I found… but nobody on the list had ever taken an alternator out of that particular car before either. The car was still too new; it was just out of its factory warranty, so I was the first to see this guy’s car outside the dealer. (Lucky me….)

With almost the entire front end of the car dismantled the alternator finally came out. What an ordeal… not only was the job made difficult by the extraction but worse by the customers concerns that I was overcharging. (Pictures helped by the way.) Cooler heads prevailed in the end; it’s all part of my job to explain things as well as to fix things. FYI; Labor guides are called “guides” not labor quotes, just keep that in mind.


You can bet I made a note on this one. In more ways than one, it was one of those square peg in the round hole problems, and I’m sure it won’t be the last one either.


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I too have made countless notes while working with the old books. I grew up those books. It's hard to imagine the way things were back then. With no IATN, Internet, Identifx, etc.


As far as Labor Guides go, or Labor "Misguides", as I like to call them. Please, we are held hostage to these guides way too often. I have a totally different way of thinking than from most. If my tech takes an hour to test and diagnosis a complicated electrical problem and another tech is doing a brake job that takes an hour, are they both worth the same, with respect to labor rates?


Let me put it another way...It takes 2 hours to cut and trim my lawn. It also takes two hours for some brain surgeries. Are THEY BOTH worth the same because they both took the same amount of time.


Labor rates and labor time must be redefined.


Sorry for go on and on, but you got me started Gonzo, it's your fault (all good stuff, right?)


I completely agree and this has always bothered me. The skill level required to do a 30 minute oil change vs a 30 min diagnoses of an electrical issue are on opposite side of the spectrum.



Gonzo I recently went through a similar issue, they even called the dealer and were quoting repair times to me. I called the dealership and their starting price for the same repair was over $280 more than me and it did not matter to the customer.... They just kept going back to the fact that I was charging "more hours".

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Two great comments. The only thing I can add to them is... been there...done that. Comparing different vocations is one way of looking at it, comparing different aspects of auto repair is also complicated. Although I would say an oil change doesn't require the same expertise as someone chasing down an electrical problem.


The big thing to me is.... getting the average customer to understand the differences and not come unglued because we have to charge you for our time.


I could go on... but that would mean a whole new story... LOL

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  • Have you checked out Joe's Latest Blog?

      I recently spoke with a friend of mine who owns a large general repair shop in the Midwest. His father founded the business in 1975. He was telling me that although he’s busy, he’s also very frustrated. When I probed him more about his frustrations, he said that it’s hard to find qualified technicians. My friend employs four technicians and is looking to hire two more. I then asked him, “How long does a technician last working for you.” He looked puzzled and replied, “I never really thought about that, but I can tell that except for one tech, most technicians don’t last working for me longer than a few years.”
      Judging from personal experience as a shop owner and from what I know about the auto repair industry, I can tell you that other than a few exceptions, the turnover rate for technicians in our industry is too high. This makes me think, do we have a technician shortage or a retention problem? Have we done the best we can over the decades to provide great pay plans, benefits packages, great work environments, and the right culture to ensure that the techs we have stay with us?
      Finding and hiring qualified automotive technicians is not a new phenomenon. This problem has been around for as long as I can remember. While we do need to attract people to our industry and provide the necessary training and mentorship, we also need to focus on retention. Having a revolving door and needing to hire techs every few years or so costs your company money. Big money! And that revolving door may be a sign of an even bigger issue: poor leadership, and poor employee management skills.
      Here’s one more thing to consider, for the most part, technicians don’t leave one job to start a new career, they leave one shop as a technician to become a technician at another shop. The reasons why they leave can be debated, but there is one fact that we cannot deny, people don’t quit the company they work for, they usually leave because of the boss or manager they work for.
      Put yourselves in the shoes of your employees. Do you have a workplace that communicates, “We appreciate you and want you to stay!”
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