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Wednesday, 20 December 2017 19:20

In Reverse: Training, Certifying and Standardizing in the 1920s

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Training: Providing a steady stream of automotive technicians, both mechanical and body, is a challenge today---not unlike the 1920’s. 


At least today we have I-CAR, Automotive Management Institute and others.  In the 1920s, we had the “University of Uncle Sam.”


On Nov. 9, 1917, the Federal Board for Vocational Education authorized payment of funds to public schools for the purpose of providing technical training, including that of auto and truck repair, for military personnel and the “University of Uncle Sam" was born.  In Los Angeles, for example, five highs schools trained 675 soldiers in 29 different trades, including auto mechanics.  After the war ended, many schools bought the equipment outright, including mechanics tools and equipment, and kept the classes going for the high school students.  Thus, the advent of high school auto shop got a “jump start.”

Many educators saw auto shop as a way to keep boys interested in school and as such, encouraged and supported such curriculum.  Auto shop and related vocational classes became the domain of boys who were “good with their hands” rather than “college-bound.”  In some respects, it stigmatized those boys in the “auto shop” strata as something “less” than the college bound boys.  On the other hand, it made high school more meaningful and pragmatic for those students who probably would not have gone to college no matter what their financial or social standing may be.  In the 1920’s and 30’s, high school auto shop opened the door for many boys to something other than farming, or the drudgery of a factory job.  It prepared many would-be mechanics, auto refinishers, auto upholsterers and future shop owners. 

Prior to WWI the auto industry was focused on selling people their first car.  It was sell, sell, sell, with not a lot of emphasis on maintenance and repair.  When the war ended, auto dealers anticipated a return to the selling mentality but instead, the country went into a downturn and new cars were not selling.  In what may have a been a first in what would be a recurring cycle throughout the years, dealers turned their focus to servicing the cars they sold, both as a way to create revenue and to show customers how good their service was so that when they needed another new car, they would remember who took care of them. This created a need for even more repair mechanics, and more support for vocational training at the high school and secondary school level.

High school auto shop evolved into to pre-auto-shop classes at the junior high school level and post-high-school auto shop night classes for those people not ready for secondary school but seeking a better understanding of auto mechanics.  As cars got more sophisticated, educators broke auto mechanic classes into several distinct categories including engine rebuilding, transmissions, electrical and so forth.  This, it was thought, would better prepare a young mechanic for what they would likely find in the real world of auto repair if they worked for a large garage or auto dealer.  A full page newspaper ad for a large Washington, D.C. garage in the late 1920s reveals 11 different departments including body and fender, paint, auto upholstery, electric, tire, battery, blacksmith, general repair, and more.  Both Ford and Chevrolet encouraged their dealers to departmentalize for greater efficiency and customer service.  This likely gave rise to the dealer body shop. 

Despite all the classes and varying regimens, one thing the schools didn’t teach, was business management.  Graduates of these automotive schools, and those that took auto shop in high school were prepared to work a wrench or a spray gun, but not a pencil or an adding machine.  Business classes were virtually non-existent.  This created a long-standing problem whereas many mechanics and body men went to work for large garages and after they became adept, decided they would strike out on their own and start their own business.  Working a wrench or a hammer and dolly is not the same as running business, paying bills, meeting payroll, and dealing with customers.  Subsequently, many failed.  True business management training for the collision repair industry would need to wait until February 1983 when the ARMS training was established.

Certified Technicians


Today, in the 21st century, the issue of licensed or certified body technicians continues to periodically bubble to the surface of the industry kettle.  The trouble is, there is no universally accepted way of denoting who is, and who isn’t a qualified, competent mechanic or body technician. 

ASE offers testing for mechanical as well as body technicians and is generally perceived as valid inasmuch as an industry standard for testing goes.  But no law exists that says everyone, including industry people and consumers, has to accept ASE testing as valid.  I-CAR is the training arm of the industry and is generally accepted in the collision repair industry as a premier training entity providing technicians with a “Platinum” status for completion of prescribed training.  However, there is no law that codifies the training and designates that someone completing the training is qualified to perform safe and complete repairs.  I-CAR training provides the knowledge, but not necessarily the skill. 

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