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Thousands of motor vehicles are damaged in traffic accidents every day. Although some are junked, most can be made to look and drive like new. Automotive body repairers straighten bent bodies, remove dents, and replace crumpled parts that are beyond repair. Usually, they can fix all types of vehicles, but most body repairers work on cars and small trucks. A few work on large trucks, buses, or tractor-trailers.

When a damaged vehicle is brought into the shop, body repairers generally receive instructions from their supervisors, who have determined which parts are to be restored or replaced and how much time the job should take.

Automotive body repairers use special machines to restore damaged frames and body sections to their original shape and location. They chain or clamp the frames and sections to alignment machines that usually use hydraulic pressure to align the damaged metal. For "unicoupe" designs, which are built without frames, they also use bench systems to return body sections to precise alignment.

Body repairers remove badly damaged sections of body panels with a pneumatic metal-cutting gun or acetylene torch and weld in new section to replace them. Repairers pull out less serious dents with a hydraulic jack or hand prying bar, or knock them out with handtools or pneumatic hammers. They smooth out small dents and creases by holding a small anvil against one side of the damaged area while hammering the opposite side. They remove very small pits and dimples with pick hammers and punches.

Body repairers also repair or replace the plastic body parts used increasingly on newer model vehicles. They remove the damaged panels and determine the type of plastic from which they are made. With most types, they can apply heat from a hot-air welding gun or by immersion in hot water, and press the softened panel back into its original shape by hand. They replace plastic parts which are more difficult to repair. Body repairers use plastic or solder to fill small dents which cannot be worked out of the plastic or metal panel. On metal panels, they then file or grind the hardened filler to the original shape and sand it before painting. In many shops, automotive painters do the painting. In smaller shops, workers often do both body repairing and painting. A few body repairers specialize in repairing fiberglass car bodies.

Some body repairers specialize in installing glass in automobiles and other vehicles. Glass installers remove broken, cracked, or pitted windshields and window glass. Curved windshields are purchased precut from the manufacturer, but flat windows sometimes must be cut from a sheet of safety glass. Glass installers apply a moisture proofing compound along the edges of the glass, place it in the vehicle, and install rubber strips around the sides of the windshield or window to make it secure and weather proof.

Body repair work has variety and challenge -- each damaged vehicle presents a different problem. Repairers must develop appropriate methods for each job, using their broad knowledge of automotive construction and repair techniques.

Body repairers usually work alone with only general directions from supervisors. In some shops, they may be assisted by helpers or apprentices. In large shops, body repairers may specialize in one type of repair, such as frame straightening or door and fender repairing.

Working Conditions

Automotive body repairers work indoors in body shops which are noisy because of the banging of hammers against metal and the whir of power tools. Most shops are well ventilated, but often they are dusty and smell of paint. Body repairers often work in awkward or cramped positions, and much of their work is strenuous and dirty. Hazards include cuts from sharp metal edges, burns from torches and heated metal, injuries from power tools, and fumes from paint.

Most work for auto body shops that specialized in body repairs and painting, and for automobile and truck dealers. Others work for organizations that maintain their own motor vehicles, such as trucking companies and buslines. A few work for motor vehicle manufacturers. About 1 automotive body repairer out of 5 is self-employed.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Many automotive body repairers enter the occupation by transfer from related helper positions. Persons in good physical condition who know how to use handtools learn the trade as helpers, picking up skills on the job from experienced body repairers. Helpers begin by assisting body repairers in tasks such as removing damaged parts and installing repaired parts. They learn to remove small dents and to make other minor repairs. They then progress to more difficult tasks such as body straightening. Generally, skill in all aspects of body repair requires 3 to 4 years of on-the-job training.

Although there is no educational requirement, most employers prefer to hire high school graduates. Completion of a formal training program in automotive body repair is highly desirable because advances in technology in recent years have greatly changed the structure, the components, and even the materials used in automobiles, requiring many new skills and creating many new problems. Automotive body repair training programs are offered by many high schools, vocational schools, private trade schools, and community colleges. Formal training in automotive body repair can enhance chances for employment and speed promotion to a journeyman position.

Certification by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, which is voluntary, is recognized as a standard of achievement for automotive body repairers. To be certified, a body repairer must pass a written examination and must have at least 2 years of experience in the trade. Completion of a high school, vocational school, trade school, or community college program in automotive body repair may be substituted for 1 year of work experience. Automotive body repairers must retake the examination at least every 5 years to retain certification.

Automotive body repairers must buy their own tools, but employers usually furnish power tools. Trainees generally accumulate tools as they gain experience, and many workers have thousands of dollars invested in tools.

An experienced automotive body repairer with supervisory ability may advance to shop supervisor. Some workers open their own body repair shops. Others become automobile damage appraisers for insurance companies.

Employment of automotive body repairers is expected to increase faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2000. As the number of motor vehicles in operation grows with the Nation's population, the number damaged in accidents will increase as well. Requirements for body repairers will also increase because new, lighter automotive designs are prone to greater collision damage than older, heavier designs. In addition, the new automotive designs increasingly have body parts made of steel alloys, aluminum, and plastics -- materials that are more difficult to work with than the traditional steel body parts. Nevertheless, the need to replace experienced repairers who transfer to other occupations or retire or stop working for other reasons will still account for the majority of job openings.

The automotive repair business is not very sensitive to changes in economic conditions, and experienced body repairers are rarely laid off. However, most employers hire fewer new workers, during an economic slowdown. Although major body damage must be repaired if a vehicle is to be restored to safe operating condition, repair of minor dents and crumpled fenders can often be deferred. As a result, persons seeking to enter this occupation may face increased competition for jobs during recessions.

The majority of body repairers employed by automotive dealers and repair shops are paid on an incentive basis. Under this method, body repairers are paid a predetermined amount for various tasks, and earnings depend on the amount of work assigned to the repairer and how fast it is completed. Employers frequently guarantee commissioned workers a minimum weekly salary. Helpers and trainees usually receive an hourly rate until they are skilled enough to work on commission. Body repairers who work for trucking companies, buslines, and other organizations that maintain their own vehicles usually receive an hourly wage.

Many automotive body repairers are members of unions, including the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers; the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America; the Sheet Metal Workers' International Association and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America (Ind.). Most body repairers who are union members work for large automobile dealers, trucking companies, and buslines.

Repairing damaged motor vehicles often involves working on their mechanical components as well as their bodies. Automotive body repairers often work closely with the following related occupations: Automotive repair service estimators, automotive mechanics, automotive painters and body customizers, and diesel mechanics.