LEESBURG, Va.—"Test Program to Certify Nation's Auto Mechanics" was the headline in the Detroit Free Press on July 30, 1972.
The article described the collaboration of two not-always-friendly associations — the National Automobile Dealers Association and the then-Automobile Manufacturers Association — to form an independent, non-profit organization, the National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence (ASE).
The new institute offered four certification tests: engine repair, brake repair, steering and suspension, and electrical systems. According to a March 11, 1973, article in Parade magazine, 11,146 auto technicians had taken those early tests, and of them about 8,000 passed the tests to become ASE-certified.
This was a modest but strong beginning to the powerhouse the 41-year-old testing organization—now known universally as ASE—has become. Today Leesburg-based ASE offers more than 40 certification tests, as well as test prep and training services and resources for technicians, employers, students, teachers and vehicle owners.
According to the ASE website, more than 330,000 vehicle technicians boast ASE certification today.
"We're the second-largest testing organization on the planet, just behind Microsoft," said Tony Molla, ASE vice president of communications.
Mr. Molla is also a satisfied customer of his own organization. He is ASE-certified in four areas himself — engine repair, steering and suspension, brakes and engine performance.
According to Mr. Molla, ASE was formed in response to an investigation by the National Association of Attorneys General. Based on numerous consumer complaints, the investigation sought to find evidence of fraud in the auto repair industry.
Much like today, the late 1960s were a transitional time in automotive technology, Mr. Molla said.
"Disc brakes and automatic transmissions were still relatively new," he told Tire Business. "The auto industry conducted its own investigation, and said, 'This isn't a fraud problem, this is an education problem.'"
There was much talk of shop licensing programs at the time, Mr. Molla said, but in the end the industry decided that a national certification program would be more effective.
"Licensing would have done nothing to address the problem," he said. "Certification is a higher standard than licensing."
With this realization, original equipment manufacturers and the aftermarket joined to provide the seed money for ASE as a place to develop assessment tools for vehicle technicians, Mr. Molla said.
While ASE boasts strong acceptance among technicians and consumers alike, the 330,000-plus certified technicians today is well below the 430,000-plus in the late 1990s. According to Mr. Molla, there is a simple reason for this: the declining number of auto technicians.
"Today there are probably 750,000 to 800,000 technicians in the U.S. at best," he said. "There used to be about 1.5 million."
In recent years, slightly fewer than half of U.S. automotive techs have been ASE-certified, he said.
The organization has added new tests to its certification program steadily over the years. However, the development of new tests is never a lightly taken step, Mr. Molla said.
"The only way we create a new certification test is if the industry comes to us and says it is necessary. It costs $100,000 to get a program ramped up, so there has to be a perceived need for it."
The latest ASE certification program — Auto Maintenance and Light Repair — was unveiled in June 2013. Since about 70 percent of all vehicle repair work is maintenance-based, it is necessary to assess technicians' ability to perform the most common maintenance and light repair tasks, ASE said at the time.
The next ASE certification test — for hybrid/electric vehicles — will be made available in January 2015, Mr. Molla said.
Perhaps the biggest recent innovation for ASE was its switch to all-computer testing, in January 2012. The old paper-and-pencil tests became unavailable at that time.
There were several reasons for the change, Mr. Molla said. The first is the sheer volume of testing ASE performs. "We just couldn't handle the volume in paper and pencil anymore."
Another reason was to give technicians greater opportunity and flexibility in taking ASE tests. "Depending on the certification you were seeking, under the old system you might only be able to take an ASE test two days a year," he said.
In any case, the reaction to the switch to computer testing has been entirely positive, Mr. Molla said.
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