Bonnets of a different kind for these girls

9th January 2009 at 00:00
Learning to be a motor car mechanic is not only for boys, writes Jean McLeish

Learning to be a car mechanic is a clean business these days. There are no oily faces emerging from under bonnets in this classroom.

Students here are studying for their Level 3 Progression Award in Motor Vehicle Maintenance and they're all sitting behind computers in a room overlooking a workshop full of cars.

Autolab has been part of the programme here for 18 months and Aberdeen was the first college in Scotland to use it. It is an interactive software package, which allows students to learn about cars without needing to get under the bonnet.

Alan Petrie is curriculum leader in the automotive engineering department at the college campus in Altens, on the outskirts of Aberdeen. "The Autolab is fabulous," he says. "What we have is a virtual training suite where I can put students through all the assignments on the computers and I can have them au fait with vehicle systems without even looking at a car."

Fortunately, they do still get under the bonnets and they can still get grease under their fingernails. But as well as being potentially cleaner work, this is also safer learning for the students. And they can access their virtual workshop using technology they have all used before with computer games.

"Rather than working on the cars individually, we get circuit boards which are made to replicate the real-life situations, but without the danger involved plus with the added help of the computer," says 18-year-old student Vicki Wallace.

The system also has two functioning engines - one petrol, one diesel - which can be connected to the diagnostic computers. There is an air conditioning rig and panel trainer - and tutors can insert faults in all these systems and the students learn to fix them.

Alan Petrie is a former mechanic who worked at the RAC technical services division before becoming a teacher 10 years ago. At the RAC he was often called as an expert witness in court, which required him to examine and road test vehicles. This means he's driven just about everything on wheels. "You name it, I've driven it. Bentleys, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Maseratis, Rolls-Royces - great fun," he says.

Like everyone here, Alan has a passion for cars, and his car of choice would be the Lamborghini Diablo, which would set him back around Pounds 250,000. Students practise on cars which have been donated, but they are all still waiting for their first Lamborghini. "Cars every year are becoming more and more intelligent, so the people working on them and fixing them need to be more intelligent as well," says Alan.

"A lot of the technology you see on cars today actually came from the space shuttle programme. Your new Range Rover and Lexus - there's no wiring in them; they're all fibre optics. The new Lexus has something like 11 on-board computers," he says.

This afternoon, Vicki is working with a circuit board alongside her computer. "This is fairly straight forward - I am just starting an assignment on contact breaker ignition systems," she explains. "It's looking at ignition timing - and your sparks and spark plugs, and how they are timed to light the air-fuel mixture to make your car run."

Nearby, mature student Gordon Batchelor, 36, is about to work on an air conditioning system. "I had an accident in my last job a couple of years ago and crushed three discs in my back. I thought I'd better come and retrain instead of sitting around on benefits," he says.

The college is soon to develop the Institute of the Motor Industry's latest qualification - Level 3 Automotive Management, which will help students develop skills to manage and run their own businesses. Everything you would find in a well-equipped commercial garage is provided for students and staff to keep up to date with new developments, so apprentices on day release receive relevant teaching.

Last year, Alan Petrie spent 10 days at Jaguar's factory, receiving hands-on experience with the latest technology: "They threw us into fixing cars," he says. "Cars which the dealerships couldn't fix. They said: 'There you go, boys, you fix it.'"

And he did.


A female friend tells a true story about going into a garage some years ago with a male companion to pick up her repaired car. She pays the bill, but the mechanic insists on addressing the conversation about the repairs to her male friend.

"You're wasting your time," she tells him after a few minutes. "He's Italian, he doesn't understand a word."

It would be nice to think that as women like Aberdeen student Claire Smith take up jobs in garages across the country, they are forcing a sea change in attitudes.

Seventeen-year-old Claire has loved cars since she was a wee girl. "I love fixing cars and I was really interested in how they work. So I thought I would come to college and train to become a mechanic and hopefully get an apprenticeship when I leave and become a qualified one," she says.

Cars are also a passion for Vicki Wallace, 18. "I used to help a lot of my friends work on their cars and mopeds, but it never really came to anything, so I thought I'd come to college," she says. "I never had any Barbie dolls - I was always playing football or doing boyish stuff."

She thinks women would be more trusting of a female mechanic. But in Scotland's energy capital, there are plenty of options for ambitious women: "Doing this, I can get into university and do a mechanical engineering course. I might be pumping oil," says Vicki.

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