Sunday, January 29, 2006

Whether sanding, smoothing or painting, auto body workers keep their hands dirty


If you don't like getting your hands dirty and you're not a fan of hard physical labor, then this isn't a job for you, because that's what it entails. Auto body workers spend their days getting grease on their hands and climbing in, under, and around cars, banging and straightening out parts.

Mike Franklin, 32, has been working on cars for 20 years. He got his start by sanding car panels for his father's auto repair business. Any of the other jobs in the shop were too dangerous for a 12-year-old kid.

Today, Franklin does everything from prep work to detailing at Maaco Collision Repair and Auto Painting in Modesto. He took a break for a couple of years, going so far as to attend culinary arts school at Oklahoma State University, but eventually decided to come back to California and cars. "I missed them," he says. "I can always cook at home."

Surprisingly, the two fields have some similarities, and auto body work is the harder of the two, according to Franklin. "If somebody's not going to like the food, then the person cooking it shouldn't serve it," he says. "It's similar with cars. If I don't like it, I won't 'sell' it to the customer. It's that simple." Franklin says he uses the word "sell," because it is the most accurate: he's selling the job he has done, and only the customer can decide if it's good enough to "buy."

Perfectionism is a good characteristic for someone considering the field, according to Franklin, as well as strong customer service skills. "You talk to the customers and get to see how they feel about their vehicles," he says.

For Derek Hampton, 21, one of his favorite parts of working on cars is the daily interaction with customers. "It's fun helping people build their dream car," he says. He considers the work a form of art. "Basically, you're sculpting something back to how it came," he says.

Hampton has been working for his dad for the past six years at Hampton's Auto Body and Restorations in Modesto. "I just like working on different cars. It's a good feeling restoring cars and putting something back together once it gets wrecked," says the younger Hampton.

When it comes to hiring, it helps if someone has experience working on his or her own car or friends' cars, is willing to work hard, and is "mechanically inclined," according to Mike Hampton, the shop's owner and Derek's father. He also looks for people with I-CAR (the Inter-Industry Conference On Auto Collision Repair) and ASE (National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence) certifications. Those applicants who hold a Gold Class I-CAR designation are preferred and are in especially high demand. For those without certifications who Hampton hires, he pays for them to take the necessary classes.

A clean driving record also helps as employees sometimes need to take the cars for test drives and the shop is responsible for insuring them.

For certain aspects of the job, all the certifications in the world won't help, says the senior Hampton. When it comes to restoration of some of the older cars, "the young kids have to go back in time," he adds.

Everyone seems to agree that if someone is familiar with cars, the best training is "hands on," in the shop, as an apprentice or as a prep worker. Otherwise, for someone without any experience, Franklin suggests taking a couple of auto body repair or auto painting classes to see if the job is the right fit and to get familiar with cars.

The pay range for auto body workers is anywhere from minimum wage for apprentices to $25 to $30 an hour for seasoned body technicians. Hampton's is not currently hiring. Maaco continually accepts applications.

Through its Technology Education Department, Modesto Junior College offers an Auto Body program with collision repair and refinishing courses. Information on I-CAR and ASE certifications can be found at and

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