As auto innovations move ahead, the idea of technicians being merely “grease monkeys” is now firmly in the past. Students training for the trade must know as much about computers as they do about wrenches.
“It’s not about ‘hard parts’ anymore,” says Al Playter, an instructor in automotive and motorcycle programs at Toronto’s Centennial College.
“We’re now dealing with computerized systems that require diagnosis. In some cases we could have up to 55 or 60 on-board computers that not only process data but control the car. To successfully diagnose it requires sophisticated equipment, and the ability to interpret the data that you see.”
Students in the program start with the basics in five disciplines: electronics and fuels; steering, suspension and brakes; powertrains; engines; and work practices and procedures, which includes computer skills, tools, measuring devices, air conditioning, lubricants, and bearings and seals. It takes three to five years to become a licensed technician.
The car’s computers will generate fault codes when something goes wrong, and the students can plug in diagnostic tools to access them, but it seldom comes down to the car simply “telling” the student what part to replace.
“The diagnostic equipment doesn’t pinpoint the exact cause,” Playter says.
“It will tell you that something is wrong and this is the area where you’re having a problem, but everything is integrated in the car now. If there’s no fuel getting to the injectors, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a simple thing such as a fuel pump.
It could be communication from one computer to another — a broken wire, a bad connection, or a bad ground.”
Playter says that electrical and fuel lessons are the toughest.
“We rate each of the courses when we’re inputting marks, and the average of the other four disciplines is four to five degrees of difficulty. Electrical and fuel is 12. It’s math and abstract thinking; it’s not nuts and bolts.”
Students also have to study hybrid vehicles, including safety when dealing with high-voltage equipment.
Despite all of the computers, though, parts still have to be replaced or fixed.
“Hammers, chisels, wrenches — we’re still using them,” Playter says. “That’s still all part and parcel, regardless of how technical we get.”