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A License To Repair

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"Why isn’t it mandatory for all collision techs to be licensed?"
— Don Marshall, manager, Fresno Chrysler/Plymouth, Fresno, Calif.

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The collision repair industry is the ultimate example of irony and paradox. In most (if not all) states, the damage appraiser needs a license to prove he’s capable of determining the cost and procedure of repairing a collision-damaged vehicle. The state mandates a test for the appraiser to take and pass to qualify for the title of "Auto Damage Appraiser" and to work in the autobody repair field. The actual repairer, however — the one who gets down and dirty repairing the crashed vehicle, the one responsible for safely returning that vehicle to the road, the one the car owner and shop owner depend on to do the job right — has no real requirements or government-mandated testing to prove his qualifications or knowledge of repair procedures." — Henry Netter, ASE Master Certified Collision/Refinish Technician and the senior repair technician at Auto Tech Collision, Philadelphia.

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To address the issue of technician licensing, BodyShop Business spoke with Jack Lundberg, executive director of the Ohio Board of Motor Vehicle Collision Repair Registration, whose agency is in charge of registering the estimated 3,000 to 3,500 independent collision repair facilities in Ohio as required by law. Because of Lundberg’s position, he knows firsthand what registration and licensing can — and can’t — accomplish for the industry.

The Interview
BSB: Based on what you know about licensing collision repair shops, would licensing techs be beneficial? What would tech licensing accomplish?

Lundberg: Anytime an increased level of technical proficiency is introduced and required of those in the field — be it medicine, law or, in this case, body repair — several things are accomplished. First, those who undergo regular training become more proficient at their tasks and, therefore, are more efficient and more profitable from an operational standpoint.

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Second, it vividly demonstrates to those outside the industry, particularly vehicle owners, dedication, professionalism and the desire to stay abreast with ever-changing technologies. Realizing that vehicles are typically the second-largest investment a person will make in his lifetime, consumers generally want to know their vehicles are in the hands of someone who’s capable of repairing them correctly and in a timely fashion; training helps assure this happens.

Third, the ongoing, additional expertise warrants and justifies an increased wage that makes for a better standard of living.

Last, technology is such that increasingly people, regardless of what industry it is, must become specialists or soon become obsolete. Engaging in regular training, whether required or not, helps to ensure shop, technician and industry survival.

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BSB: How has shop licensing helped the state of Ohio? Would tech licensing do the same?

Lundberg: There is no such thing as "shop licensing" in the state of Ohio; rather, shops are registered, and the distinction is important.

Licensing connotes an educational component required of the person seeking to practice within a given field. For example, in order for architects to practice in Ohio or elsewhere, they’re generally required to have graduated from an accredited college or university and must pass a proficiency examination before they’re authorized — i.e. licensed — to practice architecture. Additionally, they must attend a number of classes each year called "continuing education" courses in order to remain current in their fields. Afterward, they must provide proof of their attendance to their licensing board to retain their licenses.

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In the case of collision repair shop registration, there’s no educational component required of shop owners or shop employees.

Has shop registration helped the state of Ohio? Not too much has been accomplished yet. A better question is, what can registration help to accomplish for the industry? The idea of shop registration was one fostered by numerous shop owners, supported by shop owners and pursued by shop owners; it was and is meant to engender professionalism within the industry while tackling the problems that have dogged the collision repair industry for years. Those objectives cannot and will not happen unless and until shop owners come together and use their collective power to address and solve industry concerns. Until all shops are registered, the goal of achieving substantive change within the collision repair industry takes a back seat with little to show for it.

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Few shop owners attended the dozens of presentations given by the Ohio Board of Motor Vehicle Collision Repair Registration throughout the state in 1999; because of this, few shop owners learned firsthand what the Board’s objectives are. Compounding the problem is that despite shop registration being a legal requirement, many shops have chosen not to register. We, therefore, spend an inordinate amount of time, energy and money getting shops to do what’s required of them and at the expense of pursuits beneficial to the industry.

Consider, for a moment, the implications of the above. First, a lack of participation in the affairs of one’s own industry demonstrates an apathetic attitude about the future of collision repair and your profession.

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Second, and most importantly, shops that do not or have not registered send a message to the public that the industry largely tolerates illegal behavior. Given this, what ration-ale or basis does the public have upon which to justify increased door rates or material prices, to concern themselves about your profitability or to view the industry as being comprised of "professionals"? The answer: none whatsoever.

BSB: Why isn’t tech licensing mandatory, yet beautician licensing is?

Lundberg: The short answer is that no group has, to my knowledge, ever diligently pursued the idea of making technician licensing mandatory within Ohio. Does the repair industry support or oppose tech licensing? No one knows because the industry within the state has never been successfully brought together by any one person, group or association to answer that question. To create a mandatory requirement such as this requires legislation. Getting a law put on the books demands the involvement, participation, efforts and money of dozens, if not hundreds, of people calling for the same thing.

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Personally, I believe tech licensing makes sense for multiple reasons — if for no other reason than repair work has a human safety component. Does the industry feel likewise or should some other, higher priority issue be pursued first? Until the industry begins working together as a whole, a requirement such as this or any other will likely never be achieved.

In contrast, look at those industries that have succeeded in creating laws and the common traits those groups share. First, they work together and remain abreast of developments within their fields. Second, they’re active and participate in the affairs of that particular field. Third, they put money and energy toward supporting and pursuing particular positions and/or opinions that benefit their industries. Last, they realize the benefits of custom-crafting legislation that directly helps them, often at the expense of other industries.

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The collision repair industry can achieve the same end; it simply never has tried to do so in a widespread and cohesive fashion.

BSB: How could tech licensing be achieved? Who would monitor and administer it?

Lundberg: Tech licensing, or anything else for that matter, simply requires active involvement on the part of large numbers of supporters who are willing to devote time, energy and money toward achieving that objective. How much of each, of course, depends on the objective being sought and the perseverance of the group promoting it.

For example, this agency was over 10 years in the making and required literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in pursuit of its creation. It also took the efforts of dozens of people regularly coming to Columbus who sat down with and educated the legislators about the need for our creation before it happened. It can be done if those supporting the proposal pursue it.

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Who would monitor or administer tech licensing? Most likely a group familiar with the industry that’s engaged in and knowledgeable about the needs of the industry.

BSB: Would tech licensing help to improve repair quality? If techs had to be licensed, do you think they’d be less apt to perform low quality work or take repair shortcuts?

Lundberg: Generally speaking, yes, it would tend to improve the quality of repairs. However, other factors influence a given repair. For example, does the tech utilize the techniques he or she has learned? Does shop management support and allow for the use of these techniques? Does the shop earn a profit or lose money when utilizing the training? How susceptible is the shop, the tech or the consumer to cutting corners? And, does the industry generally support, frown upon or tolerate less-than-adequate repairs? All of these and other factors largely determine and affect ongoing repair quality.

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Would licensing promote higher-quality repairs? I believe that would be determined by the attitude of the industry. As an example, I don’t engage in illegal activity because of several detriments:

1. Obviously, the potential for fines and/or imprisonment.

2. The disdain I’d receive from the public, my family and my circle of acquaintances were I to do so.

In other words, there are substantial penalties (i.e. monetary, loss of freedom and disgrace) attached to that sort of behavior, and I don’t need someone policing my activities to keep me on the straight and narrow. If, however, there are no real or perceived penalties for a particular action, then I’d say it becomes a question of pride, ethics or appreciation for doing the right thing.

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All business, regardless of the industry, depends upon customers because they pay the bills. If, when given the chance to do the job correctly vs. incorrectly, simply keep in mind that if done incorrectly, the customer may never return. On the other hand, a satisfied customer usually always comes back and, more importantly, normally will share his experience with others, generating additional customers, sales and, hopefully, profits.

BSB: If shop registration were administered correctly, would technician licensing be an issue?

Lundberg: Licensing, or any other subject for that matter, becomes an issue only if an industry doesn’t give it widespread support. If the industry as a whole demands it and insists upon its implementation, they give rise to a level of expectation that, by necessity, becomes the norm. The end result is that it becomes a non-issue; it’s business as usual. On the other hand, if a specific requirement is supported piecemeal, it becomes relevant only to those demanding it and loses its usefulness in the broader, industrywide sense.

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BSB: Many say licensing requirements are a joke. Because of this, people often don’t take shop or technician licensing seriously. What can be done to make licensing a viable way to ensure repairs are done correctly?

Lundberg: One needs only to look at other professions to evaluate the usefulness and practical implications of licensing or registration. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, architects, engineers and many others insist on those of their own being licensed with marked results. The average income for a doctor comes in at about $250,000 per year; a partner at a medium-sized law firm earns about $150,000 per year. Engineers start their careers out of college at roughly $65,000 annually, and on and on. Moreover, people view them as professionals and support them financially by utilizing them for their various needs. Is licensing a joke?

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Only if the industry believes it to be.

Writer Jack Lundberg is the executive director of the Ohio Board of Motor Vehicle Collision Repair Registration.

Look North, My Friend
by Henry Netter, Contributing Editor

The provinces of Canada require that all bodymen be licensed to work in a body shop. To better understand how the program works, I spoke with people involved in apprenticeship and licensing. One of them was John Norris, executive director of the Hamilton District Autobody Repair Association (HARA) and spokesperson for the Collision Industry Action Group (CIAG) in Ontario.

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Technician licensing has been required in Ontario since 1964, when large masses of British and other European immigrants began settling in Canada. According to Norris, licensing was a common practice in their countries so Canada adopted the practice as well.

"There are 13,000 licensed collision repair or auto body techs in the province and 1,200 apprentices," says Norris. Besides mandatory technician licensing, shops must provide proof that they employ trades-licensed techs or they won’t be licensed to do business in the province and will face penalties that range all the way up to court-ordered shop closure.

To say that Canada is in the forefront of technician licensing would be an understatement. The cooperation between the Canadian government and industry has resulted in the training of qualified people who are required to attain a license and abide by industry standards or risk losing their license and their means of income.

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How do you become a licensed collision repair technician in Canada? The first step is an apprenticeship.

Norris says that Ontario has two branches of the trade: autobody repair, which requires two years or 4,000 hours of training; and collision repair, which requires three years or 7,200 hours of training. The technician must complete apprenticeship hours before taking the written examination. If you pass your government examination with a 75 percent or higher, you can work in Ontario and any of the other Canadian provinces. Each branch has in-school training. Autobody is 16 weeks, and collision repair is 24 weeks. Attending classes during the apprenticeship period is mandatory.

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How do other provinces of Canada handle their licensing requirements for body/collision techs? Glenn Kozak, technical services representative of The Alberta Motor Association, says that in the province of Alberta, all collision techs are licensed through the apprenticeship board and are required to complete an apprenticeship that usually lasts four years. Once a year, they attend a technical or trade school (NAIT-Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton or SAIT-Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary) for two months. At the end of their apprenticeship, they’re required to take a final exam, and if they pass, they become licensed techs.

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The success of the licensing program speaks for itself. Since 1944, Alberta has licensed more than 240,000 journeymen in various trades. Strict standards of excellence in apprenticeship training are developed through cooperation between government and industry so excellence in workmanship is established and maintained. A unique feature of the Alberta system is that more than 130 advisory groups are involved in guiding the curricula.

What’s licensing done for the Canadian collision repair industry? Norris says it’s improved the reputation of the industry as a whole and has helped to make the industry a more appealing career choice for young people. Also, he says there’s more professionalism within the industry and more consumer confidence in Canadian technicians.

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Another positive aspect of the licensing requirement is the elimination of unskilled technicians. Since all technicians must complete trade school and apprenticeships before they’re licensed, the collision repair industry is more uniform in ability.

"You’re always going to have people who make mistakes, but at least there isn’t the guy who just doesn’t know how to do the repair," says Norris. "There are still some problems, but [the repair industry] is still vastly different from what I’ve seen in the U.S."

In an e-mail sent to BodyShop Business from Jonnie Bradley, administrative director of the California Autobody Association (CAA), Bradley explains why CAA hasn’t pursued technician licensing:

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"At this time, there’s no law requiring the licensing of collision repair technicians in the state of California. CAA polled its membership over a year ago on the issue, and the majority of response was against it. It was viewed by a large portion of the industry as a means of increasing fees being collected from shops to fund an agency to police the industry — in other words, increased cost to do business. While there are several benefits to licensing (reduction of backyard operations), the overall perceived increased cost to the legitimate shops is what stopped the proposed licensing legislation at that time."

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