Automotive body repairers, also called collision repair technicians or auto body mechanics, are highly sought after skilled crafts people who repair parts of vehicles that are damaged by collisions or accidents, rust, or other causes. Most vehicles that have sustained damage from a collision can be repaired and refinished to look and drive like new. An automotive body repairer removes dents, straightens or aligns bent frames or bodies, and replaces parts that cannot be repaired. Collision repair technicians repair all types of vehicles including cars, SUVs, and small trucks. Some choose to specialize in repairing large commercial trucks, school or commuter buses, or tractor-trailers. These vehicles require different training and skills.
Repairing each damaged vehicle presents unique challenges and offers the automotive body repairer variety in their workday as all vehicles sustain different damage. Repairers must be able to determine the appropriate repair procedures and parts needed using the knowledge and training they have received. They must first determine what materials the vehicle is made of, the construction of the vehicle, and the extent of the damage.
Auto Body Mechanics Job Duties and Functions
If the vehicle has been heavily damaged in a collision an automotive body repairer might start the repairs by realigning the vehicle's frame. To realign the vehicles frame a repairer chains or attaches the frame and other damaged sections to alignment machines. These machines use hydraulic pressure to realign damaged areas of the vehicle and return it to its original operating state. Some newer cars are manufactured with "Unibody" design. This method of manufacturing describes cars that are built without frames and they must be repaired to exacting factory specifications for the vehicle to operate correctly after the repairs are complete. For unibody constructed vehicles, repairers use manufacturers benchmark standards and policies to measure the extent to which each section is out of alignment and then use hydraulic machinery to return the damaged vehicle to its original shape.
After the frame is aligned repairers will begin to repair or replace damaged body parts. They remove dents by hammering them out with metalworking tools such as a pneumatic metal-cutting gun. They then smooth out the sections that have been hammered by filing, grinding, or sanding until the finish is smooth. To fill dents that cannot be worked out of the metal collision repair technicians use plastic or solder materials. They file or grind these filler materials to their original shape and then clean the area with a tool that is similar to a sand blaster. Depending on the severity of the damage some sections of the vehicle may have sustained extensive damage and cannot be repaired. Any parts that cannot be repaired would be removed with a cutting torch and replacement parts sized and fitted and welded into the appropriate area.
Plastic body parts are increasingly used on new vehicles and these parts would be fixed or replaced during the repair process. Damaged panels are removed and the collision repair technician identifies the type and properties of the plastic used. There are a wide variety of plastics in use today in new vehicles. For most types of plastic material used in a vehicle, repairers will apply heat from a hot-air welding gun to soften it and then mold the affected sections back into shape using their hands. Sometimes automotive body repairers choose to immerse the affected sections or panels in hot water to soften them prior to molding the areas back into shape manually. Some plastic parts cannot be repaired due to the damage they incurred and those parts will be replaced.
Some body repairers choose to focus their careers on specialties such as fixing fiberglass car bodies or installing and replacing glass in automobiles and other vehicles. Vehicle glass installers are responsible for removing broken or cracked windshields and other window glass. To replace glass the repairer applies a moisture-proofing compound around the perimeter of the glass and then places the glass in the vehicle. To secure and weatherproof the glass to prevent leaks or drafts rubber strips will be installed around the sides of the windshield or windows replaced.
Internal areas of the vehicle may have sustained damage due to a collision. Parts that may need repairs or replacement materials might be the upholstery, seating, dashboards, or inside door panels. In addition, depending on the type and severity of the collision computer and electronic systems might have been impacted and will need to be repaired. Only after all external and internal damage has been repaired would the affected areas of the vehicle be repainted to match the color of the other areas of the car.
To successfully repair a damaged vehicle an automotive body repairer will usually follow these steps:
- Perform visual inspection of the damages to the vehicle including the outside and undercarriage of the vehicle
- Test drive the vehicle to accurately determine damage to mechanical, electrical, or computerized components
- Use computerized testing devices to check operating systems of the vehicle
- Review the manufacturers technical manuals for updated information on parts to be used and procedures/standards to be followed when making repairs
- Make accurate estimate of time required to repair vehicle
- Compile list of parts needed and cost of replacement/new parts
- Act as liaison with clients insurance company or client to discuss cost adjustments and additional materials and charges as repairs proceed
- Perform needed repairs including:
- Alignment, dent removal, replacement of damaged plastic parts and materials, replacement of broken glass, fiberglass body parts, upholstery and other damaged areas inside the car, electrical and computer systems affected by the damage according to manufacturers specifications and established industry standards
Auto Body Mechanics Job Characteristics and Work Environment
Repairers usually work by themselves on the repairs they are assigned with minimal direction from a supervisor. To increase production and improve efficiencies at the shop sometimes assistants or apprentices are assigned to assist experienced repairers. As many larger repair shops use an assembly-line approach repairers would work on one aspect of the repair and their colleagues would work on other portions depending on their specialty. For example, one worker might realign the frame while another would repair metal portions of the car including doors and fenders. Another person would be responsible for plastic and fiberglass parts, another for windshield and other glass, and another for the damage inside the car such as seating, dashboards, etc. Once all repairs are complete the car would be turned over to the automotive painters for painting and refinishing.
Most automotive body repairers work indoors in shops that are often noisy due to the hand tools and power tools and machinery used for repairs. Repairers have a very physically demanding job as they are often standing for extended periods of time or working in cramped spaces in uncomfortable positions. The tools and machinery used are often quite heavy and need to be lifted by hand. Although most shops are well ventilated repairers are exposed to a variety of toxic chemicals, gasoline, solvents, dust and paint fumes that could be hazardous to their health. They must take great care to avoid injuries including cuts from sharp metal objects and power tools and burns from heated metal and heat producing tools. Serious injuries and accidents are rare as most shops practice industry safety standards and keep their shop clean and organized.
Most automotive body repairers work a standard eight hour day, five days a week. Sometimes additional hours are needed on nights and weekends to meet customer demands and depending on the backlog of repair work to be completed. Repairers who own their own shop will put in additional hours developing their customer base, meeting with clients, working with insurance companies and parts distributors, managing staff, and the general administrative tasks such as bill payment and payroll required of all business owners.
To be successful in their profession, automotive body repairers should possess most of the following skills and attributes:
- Attention to detail
- Ability to lift heavy parts and equipment, work in confined spaces in awkward positions
- Aptitude for following instructions and diagrams in manufacturers manuals
- Interest and passion for learning new technologies to meet rapidly changing car designs and manufacture
- Concern for personal safety and that of their co-workers
- Ability to work independently
- Tolerance for dust, odors, and chemicals
- Exceptional time management skills to insure repairs are completed according to estimate
- Flexibility of work schedule to accommodate workload and customer needs - including evenings and weekends
- A repairer who owns their own shop would also need effective communication and superior customer service skills as well as the expertise to accurately estimate the work hours and parts needed for each repair project
Auto Body Schools and Collision Repair Training
A high school diploma or GED is usually the minimum education required to become a collision repair technician. However more specialized auto body training is needed to learn the techniques needed for the newer more sophisticated vehicles that often have computerized operating systems. Many postsecondary vocational schools and local community colleges offer courses in electronics, physics, chemistry, and computers, which provide a great background for anyone interested in a career as an automotive body repairer. These training programs would also combine classroom instruction and hands-on practice on damaged vehicles. Vocational, trade, and technical school programs typically offer certificate programs and will award certificates to graduates after 6 months to a year of successful study of collision repair. Some regional community colleges offer 2-year degree programs in collision repair. Many vocational high schools offer collision repair training programs that provide solid training in automotive body repair. Students get a combination of classroom instruction and hands-on training working on damaged vehicles.
The National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation (NATEF) is the organization that evaluates collision repair technician training programs. They compare the content of a training program against training and testing standards developed in conjunction with the automotive industry and recommend which programs qualify for certification.
Automotive repair technology is becoming more sophisticated each year, and most employers prefer to hire applicants who have successfully completed a formal auto body repair training program or refinishing at a vocational school or community college. In many urban areas or in repair shops that are dealing with certain models of vehicles national certification is expected and required if a candidate wants to further their career past entry-level work. Most auto body shop mechanics are ASE certified. The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) provides a standardized method of testing. Although this certification is not mandatory it is the industry credential most sought after by shops hiring new repair technicians. Collision Repair Technicians have a choice of up to four ASE Master Collision Repair and Refinish Exams. Repairers who pass at least one exam and complete 2 years of practical work experience at a repair shop earn ASE certification. Successfully completing a postsecondary program in automotive body repair may be substituted for 1 year of work experience. If a collision repair technician passes all four exams they earn the ASE Master Collision Repair and Refinish Technician designation. The materials and parts used to manufacture a vehicle are changing rapidly and becoming more complex and on-going training is needed for a repair technician to remain up-to-date on new procedures. Many repair shops provide advanced training and access to updated technical manuals and software to their repair technicians. To retain their ASE certification automotive body repairers must retake the collision repair and refinish examinations at least once every 5 years. Many vehicle and paint manufacturers provide specialized training on their products and conduct certification programs that can help a repairer advance in their career.
Collision repair technicians who are new to their profession will begin their career by assisting experienced body repairers in a variety of tasks. They will get on-the-job experience removing damaged body parts and welding and installing repaired parts. As a collision repair technicians' skills improve they would then take on more challenging tasks including alignments and replacement of damaged parts that cannot be repaired. It takes approximately 3 to 4 years of hands-on training in a repair shop to become skilled in all facets of vehicle body repair. Standards and training differ for glass installers but basic skills can be acquired in as little as 6 months. Becoming fully qualified, however, can take several years.
Auto Body Mechanic Jobs
The job market for automotive body repairers is projected to be excellent due to the increasing number of vehicles currently operating, the complexity of newer vehicles, and the growing number of retirements expected in the future. As the number of motor vehicles in use increases, the potential for more vehicles being damaged in accidents increases. Newer vehicles are manufactured of lighter materials than older cars and sustain greater damage in a collision than older, heavier models, so more repairs are needed. As vehicles are made with more complex computer and electronic operating systems less are being repaired after a collision due to the high cost of replacing these parts. These cars are often "totaled" by the insurance company and not repaired and this will temper the growth of employment for new collision repair technicians. Because most drivers are dependent on their vehicles to get to work, school, run errands, visit family, etc. automotive body repairers are less sensitive to economic downturns that might effect employment in other professions. Extensive damage must be repaired for the vehicle to run safely and to pass the inspection process required by most states so drivers are not able to put off these repairs based on economic conditions.
The majority of collision repair technicians are employed by independently owned repair shops and automotive dealers. They are paid on an incentive basis meaning they are paid a set amount for assigned tasks and how long it takes to complete these tasks. Repair shops often guarantee workers a minimum weekly salary and additional pay can be earned through additional work. Benefits often vary widely depending on the size of the shop and whether it is independently owned or part of a dealership. Paid vacation and sick time, health insurance, and 401Ks are becoming increasingly common benefits in the collision repair industry.
- National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation
- National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE)
- Automotive Careers Today
- NATEF Certified Schools by State
- Automotive Youth Educational Systems
- Automotive Service Association
- National Automobile Dealers Association
Schools for Automotive Body Repairers are listed in the column to the left.