Dealers say they benefit from paying for service techs' certification

Audi Nashua in New Hampshire pays factory certification fees for its 12 service technicians.

The best way for dealership service technicians to display their skills and advance their careers is to earn certification by an automaker or professional group. Dealers who pay to get their techs certified say they often realize a handsome return on that investment.

Certification provides verified proof that a technician can, say, rebuild a turbocharger or weld complex aluminum structures. Historically, technicians have been responsible for pursuing much of their own learning in such areas.

But over the last decade, two challenges have encouraged dealerships to provide financial incentives to their techs to become and stay certified, says Mattia Janigro, a senior associate at the automotive consultancy Carlisle & Co.

The first, Janigro told Fixed Ops Journal, is the growing shortage of recruits in mechanical trades. The second, he says, is the rise of certified collision repair programs that require considerable advanced training and techs with multiple certifications in various jobs.

Carlisle conducts an annual survey of more than 18,000 service technicians and advisers. "We hear time and time again how important it is for technicians to see that the shop is invested in them," Janigro notes.

Dealerships that cover the cost of certification and training gain a major advantage in tech hiring and retention, Janigro says. Factory certification also offers these dealerships a potential marketing tool to impress service customers, he adds.

Specialty of the shop

The most common investment in tech certification is the least expensive: paying for National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence tests, which cost as much as $123 to take.The tests, ASE says, assess a tech's mechanical expertise by posing multiple-choice questions about typical repairs. ASE also offers certification in specialized areas such as brake and automatic transmission repair.

Most dealerships pay for technicians who take ASE tests, Janigro says. But he notes that many automakers also expect techs to pursue brand-specific certifications and online training to keep the certifications current.

Janigro estimates that less than 20 percent of U.S. dealerships pay for their techs to take time away from their service bays for remote training or even online study.

Danielle Rodriguez is fixed operations director at Audi Nashua, part of Lyon-Waugh Auto Group, which runs seven premium-brand dealerships in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.She says her dealership pays Audi of America an annual certification fee of $2,000 for each of its 12 service technicians.

"I used to work at a General Motors dealership, and you would hear about ASEs a lot," Rodriguez says. "In the Audi world, you have to be an Audi certified technician."

Like most other automakers, Audi has tech certifications specific to its vehicles and offers its own training regimen with various levels of certification. Audi has indicated that starting next year, it will require factory certification for techs to do warranty work, Rodriguez says. Audi did not respond to requests for comment.

Sending techs to Audi's training centers in New Jersey or Atlanta for specialized certifications they need to work on advanced models such as the Audi R8 can cost dealerships at least $1,000 in travel expenses, Rodriguez says. For technicians who are not factory-certified but have ASE certification or mechanical experience, Audi offers an intensive two-week FastTrack program.

Some dealerships shun such investment in certification, fearing the service department would lose productivity because of a missing employee, and that employee would miss wages. But Rodriguez says her dealership essentially covers the earnings of employees who are out of the shop for training.

"This way," she adds, "it's almost like vacation pay plus training instead of, we're sending you for training and you don't earn anything."

Rodriguez says spending on tech certification helps the dealership build a stable, skilled work force.

"It's advantageous for both dealership and technician," she says, for techs to keep learning and for the service department to benefit from their broader, up-to-date skills. Rodriguez adds: "We don't have much staff turnover."

Body language

Less than two out of five franchised new-vehicle dealerships in the United States operate their own body shops, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association. But automaker-certified collision repair programs "offer material advantages" to dealerships that take part in them, says Paul Gage, director of training at Pro Collision Training in New Braunfels, Texas.

Automakers generally require their dealerships' body shops to have technicians certified by factory programs or independent training groups such as the Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair (I-CAR), Gage says.

Gage: "Pricey" certifications

He estimates that three-fourths of collision repair technicians get some sort of employer-paid training.

Although dealerships are more likely to provide such training for collision techs than mechanical techs, Gage adds, paying for full certification of collision techs is still relatively new — and expensive.

Gerry Rosenbarker, collision manager at Mohawk Collision Center in Scotia, N.Y., says he spends $5,000 to $7,000 a year on training for each of the body shop's certified technicians. Thirteen of the shop's 23 employees have both I-CAR and factory certifications, he adds. The shop serves Mohawk Honda in Schenectady, N.Y., as well as nearby Subaru and Porsche dealerships.

I-CAR trains and certifies collision technicians at shops such as Rosenbarker's in areas that include welding, frame work and repair estimating.

I-CAR conducts about one-third of its training at remote locations, Gage says,with associated travel costs.

Rosenbarker says his most experienced collision techs are certified at I-CAR's platinum level, the highest designation. These techs train for about two weeks each year with I-CAR, while lower-level techs get three to five days of annual training, he says.

Enrollment in individual I-CAR classes costs about $120 to $300 per technician, Gage says. The most difficult certifications, requiring the most hands-on training, are more expensive. "Those welding certifications are pricey," Rosenbarker says — $700 or $800 each.

The highest level of structural tech certification through I-CAR requires 24 classes and costs $5,000, Gage says. Estimator certification includes 23 classes and costs $2,875, he adds.

Mohawk Collision pays its techs while they undergo remote and online training and certification, Rosenbarker says. "It's a big expense," he says, "but we use it as a sales tool." Mohawk Honda gives buyers of new and used vehicles a presentation about the collision center's work, he adds.

The collision center's revenue has increased from about $50,000 a month in 2013 to $450,000 per month this year, Rosenbarker notes. In part, that reflects the body shop's ability to retain talented and experienced techs by paying for their certifications, he says.

"I have a young technician who came from another facility, who was repeatedly told he'd get training, but it never happened," Rosenbarker says.

"Yesterday, I loaded up his I-CAR account. My God, you'd think I gave the kid a wad of $100 bills."

You can reach Alex Kwanten at foj@autonews.com

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