The ascent of the mechanic

11th September 1998 at 01:00
For quick fitters choose Britain, but for meals while you wait for your wheels go to Sweden. Simon Midgley reports.

A DUTCH garage returns cars in mint condition, Swedish mechanics can have saunas at work and the British score points for work-based training.

These Euro visions were supplied by students from Birmingham's Handsworth College who visited car repair shops in Holland and Sweden on an exchange programme.

They found that traditional greasy-pit working environments are dying out. The job in Sweden has become so squeaky clean that if you do get covered in oil you can shower in the workplace, then enjoy a relaxing sauna or Jacuzzi.

The exchange programme was partially funded through the European Commission Leonardo programme, the vocational project launched in 1995, and by the trainees' garages.

Six male and two female trainees aged between 17 and 20 spent three weeks working in garages near Gothenburg and Amsterdam and studied at partner colleges in the Netherlands and Sweden.

Eight motor technician students from Europa College in Amsterdam have spent three weeks studying paint spraying at Handsworth's automotive and technology centre's workshop. Two Swedish students spent three weeks at garages in the west Midlands.

Phil Waterman, development manager at the Birmingham centre, said that the Swedish and Dutch garages had been particularly impressed with the skills and expertise of the British students. Swedish students and their Dutch counterparts spend more time studying in their colleges than their UK equivalents who spend four days a week with employers.

He added that car maintenance has advanced a long way. Aside from the Swedes' showers and saunas, fully-tiled workshops are now commonplace.

But British garages are less environmentally conscious than Swedish and Dutch competitors, he added. "In our case it seems to be one bin in the corner. In their case it seems to be three, four or five because they separate their products into non-disposable wastes, plastics, glass, cardboard."

Sweden also has a more advanced approach to customer care. He said: "In Sweden they have this system where customers with a problem can just drive up and in a special bay set aside for customer care a designated mechanic will discuss the problem, book him in, quote for the job and look at the car there and then. In our country perhaps you might have a problem which is a three-minute job but you have to go away, bring you car back in at a later date and then wait three days."

Mr Waterman says that the Swedish and Dutch garages have said that they would be happy to take British students again. "They were impressed by how knowledgeable our students were, that they started work on their own initiative and could actually do the job, which does say something about the training in this country, the fact that it is up-to-date and relevant."

It is common for a car to be washed and valeted before it is returned to its owner by garages in Sweden and Holland. Swedish customers who visit quick-fit bays receive vouchers to use in garage restaurants while they wait for the job to be done. One garage in Amsterdam leaves packets of complimentary mints in vehicles.

Claire Ameson, 19, who is an apprentice technician at the Bridge Cross Volvo dealership in Stourbridge, says her three weeks in Sweden was a very positive experience.

"It surprised me how considerate they are to the environment. When they bring the cars into the workshop they already have an exhaust extractor fitted to the cars. They have no exhaust fumes in the workshop at all. And when they get parts they are not wrapped in as many boxes that we have over here. Everything is recycled - the plastic, the cardboard, you have to put them into different recycling bins.

"This is the way that we will have to go, so it's given me a broader knowledge of what we will be doing in a few years time."

Helen Lanchester, 17, from Birmingham, works as a trainee mechanic in Halesowen. She said: "They are a bit more advanced. They use modern diagnostic technology and computers. They also seem more relaxed. Everyone over here seems uptight. Get things done quick, quick, quick."

Jeremy Vermei, 24, a student from Europa College in Amsterdam, said: "We are learning how to paint cars. We do theory in the morning and practical work in the afternoon. We only did it once in Holland and it was not very good. They did not go deeply into it.

"I think this student exchange is a good idea. They are more advanced here with painting than in Holland. We make mistakes, they tell us why."

Fellow Europa student Stefan Rgema, 20, agrees. "Yes it's been very helpful, very educational. In Holland we do not paint a lot and here we do it all day, the theory and the practical so we learn very much. When you only get the theory, you cannot see it in the car itself. So when you see practically too, you can understand it better."

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