Mark Moffatt says when technicians at a vehicle repair shop become ASE-certified, it’s a “source of pride” for those techs. Moffatt, director of vehicle services for Fairfax County, Virginia, who oversees four repair facilities for the Fairfax County Department of Vehicle Services, led an effort starting in 2017 to get ASE Blue Seal designations for his facilities. All four facilities had achieved the designation by 2018.
For a facility to achieve an ASE Blue Seal designation, 75% of its technicians must hold individual ASE certifications in at least one area. Among the more than 15 available areas for ASE certification are automobile, collision repair, medium-heavy truck, transit bus, and school bus.
“We make that a point of pride to keep them going each year, because that’s an annual renewal,” Moffatt said. “Once you’ve earned an ASE certification, it’s good for five years, but then you have to re-certify, so we have a program set up for technicians to re-certify and earn additional ones.”
Moffatt joined the county about nine years ago. About two years later, after researching ASE certifications, he began working with Deputy Operations Director Dan Gonzalez; the department’s director of training, Paul Cupka, and other leaders to start the process of ASE certifications.
Return on Investment
“What it initially did was it built pride with the individual technician,” Moffatt said when asked what the return on investment was to the county for getting ASE certification.
“So the individual technicians started to get a foundation and a base of pride for their knowledge,” he said.
ASE-certified technicians helped Fairfax County shops as other technicians learned from them and got more up to speed on the ASE-certified techs’ areas of expertise.
Another return on investment is that the certified techs could perform more complex tasks without the leaders having to check on their work every step of the way.
Additionally, when ASE-certified techs worked on vehicles, those vehicles were less likely to come back for deficiencies, Moffatt said. Work from non-ASE-certified techs requires a review from supervisors.
Cupka said the return on investment is strong even if the tech takes a test for ASE certification and does not pass.
“They still learn from studying for that test,” he said.
Techs learn material from the study guide that helps the county, and they learn more while studying to pass it on the second try.
The Road to Get There
Much work took place on the road to capturing that return on investment. When Moffatt started with the county, he heard concerns from other departments about the quality of service from his Vehicle Services Department.
“And that’s why we went to ASE to get the certifications, so that I can help my fellow directors in the different departments feel confident that the piece of equipment was going out safely to transport their team member from point A to point B to do their mission for the county,” Moffatt said.
Some leaders in Vehicle Services were initially resistant to change, Moffatt said.
But more resistance came from the long-time techs.
“Everybody likes to do status quo for the most part, so … [it was about] opening the mindset up with 25-year veterans who had done maintenance and had done it well but had no desire to be certified,” he said.
He provided an example of long-time techs who thought they could simply listen to an engine and tell which cylinder wasn’t working properly.
“And you potentially could do that with a vehicle that was built in the ’80s or ’90s, but you can’t do that with a vehicle built in 2000, 2010, 2020,” Moffatt said.
The process for Fairfax County to achieve the designation continued slowly, as Vehicle Services worked to obtain buy-in from leaders of each of the department’s four facilities, along with other key staff.
Within the first year, about 35 techs were certified. Things moved more quickly in the second year, with the number of techs with at least one certification growing to about 80.
That number went up to around 120 by the end of the third year, then from 150 to 160 by the end of the fourth year. The department has since been able to maintain that number.
About the Department
The department’s Jermantown and West Ox maintenance facilities are in the northwest part of the county. Jermantown maintains the smaller staff fleet of about 2,300 cars, pickups,
and minivans. About 26 of the 34 techs at that shop hold at least one ASE certification, mostly in the automobile series, or “A” series of certifications for ASE.
West Ox is one of the two largest facilities the county operates, with about 62 staff members working two shifts. They perform maintenance on about 800 school buses, about 110 pieces of fire equipment, and about 300 to 400 Ford F-Series vehicles in the F-250 to F-650 range.
The Alban maintenance facility in Springfield and the Newington facility in Lorton are the two other facilities in the southwest part of the county.
Alban is the smallest site, and staff there works solely on heavy-duty trucks. Techs at the facility work on about 90 18-wheelers, along with additional stormwater and wastewater vehicles adding up to about 450 total pieces of equipment.
Moffatt said the Newington site is somewhat of a sister shop to West Ox, performing maintenance on about 800 buses and about 90 pieces of fire equipment, along with about 300 pieces of police equipment, including about 75 motorcycles. He also oversees an auto body shop at the facility.
Paying for the Cert Makes a Difference
The county pays the registration fee for techs to take the test if they pass it; that made a big difference, mostly for the younger techs. After five years, the county pays for the techs to get recertified.
Another factor that made a big difference was that in early December, the county pays bonus money to techs for each certification they hold.
“That was an additional incentive for them to be proud of what they earned, but also get a little bit of cash in their pocket right before the holidays,” Moffatt said.
In addition to individual ASE certifications, techs can earn a master’s level certification. For automobiles or medium- and heavy-duty trucks, that requires the tech to earn seven or eight individual certifications.
A tech with one to four individual ASE certifications receives $250 after taxes. A tech who has earned five or more individual ASEs receives $400.
The county pays $500 for a tech who earns an ASE Master Technician Certification, which involves the tech passing about seven tests in a series.
“We have a dozen guys right now that have 5 masters,” Moffatt said.
Another class of ASE is called World Class Technician, with about 2,000 technicians earning that status since its inception about 30 years ago. Four Fairfax County Department of Vehicle Services techs hold that certification, which requires 22 specific ASE certifications and masters certifications in six areas.
“Basically the best of the best,” Cupka said. “They have taken the time to study and pass just about all the tests out there.”
Moffatt said the program helps the county in its recruiting and retention efforts. In the area of recruiting, he said younger techs see that the county is offering an opportunity for training and mentoring to take ASE tests. Moffatt said businesses like car dealerships don’t typically offer that benefit to techs.
At a business like a car dealership, techs are “swamped with work and they’re paid, but they don’t get other learning opportunities to make themselves better,” Moffatt said.
Regarding the area of retention, “that’s a two-edged coin,” Moffatt said. It provides a reason for a tech to stay with the county.
“But I think that it also prepares them in some cases unfortunately to try to go hang their shingle out with somebody else after they earned the ASEs with us,” Moffatt said. “Somebody out there will pay them more money because they have the ASEs, and they didn’t have to worry about the training.”
The Fairfax County Department of Vehicle Services has experienced challenges like other businesses as a result of today’s tight labor market, and keeping trained technicians within the facility from being lured away is a main challenge.
To help combat that challenge, the department created an internal academy to train technicians.
Cupka said that helps in recruiting and retention as fleets and dealers in the private sector don’t pay enough attention to training.
Mark Moffatt, director of vehicle services
Fairfax County, Virginia
Paul Cupka, director of training
Fairfax County, Virginia