I-CAR leaders, during the training organization’s annual meeting in Orlando, Florida, in late July, openly explained that the past year had been a tough one financially, but also pointed to a number of accomplishments as well as plans for the future that they believe will turn things around for the non-profit.

In his report at the meeting, for example, I-CAR CEO Tom McGee noted that the mobile “Welding Qualification Tests” program launched last year has seen “positive results.” I-CAR has outfitted a handful of trucks with welding equipment in order to conduct testing at shops and other locations beyond its 120 established testing sites.

“Nearly 50 percent of the total volume of qualification tests done in fiscal 2007 was done with these units,” McGee said. “This program has been a tremendous asset.”

McGee said he appeared on “Goss’ Garage,” a segment of the television program “MotorWeek,” last fall to discuss the importance of properly trained technicians and the value to consumers of seeking out a shop with the Gold Class Professionals designation.

“We’re going to do another broadcast taping (for the program) related to the mobile qualification testing and the importance of proper welding in collision repairs,” McGee said.

On the international front, McGee said, I-CAR saw an increase in student activity in Canada; I-CAR New Zealand is doing well; and I-CAR is just finishing its first year operating in Australia, where classes are being taught in more venues than projected for the first year.

McGee said that although live classroom training will remain I-CAR’s primary distribution method, use of its online training library is growing albeit slowly. CollisionTV, a satellite television system in Canada on which I-CAR had been offering classes, has ceased operation, he said, but I-CAR continues to look for alternative ways of bringing classes to students.

Lastly, McGee pointed to the improved ratings I-CAR received in an annual survey conducted by an industry publication on satisfaction with I-CAR training.

“Even though we had a very difficult year, I think we are on an upward trend,” McGee concluded.

The numbers behind that “difficult year” show that “student units” – one unit equals one student taking one I-CAR class – were down 12 percent from the preceding year. Even more dramatically, at just 100,756 student units, it was the lowest student turn-out in more than a dozen years, and just two-thirds the number it had in such peak years as 1997, 1998 and 2002.

McGee told those gathered in Orlando for the meeting that student numbers rebounded somewhat this past May and June at the end of I-CAR’s fiscal year, but could not make up for the exceptionally weak three months that preceded.

But unlike prior to 2003 when I-CAR regularly taught more than 130,000 to 160,000 student units annually, the organization no longer solely relies on students for its income. In recent years, I-CAR has begun developing and offering vehicle- and manufacturer-specific training for a number of OEMs.

Still, the net financial results for the year were not good: a loss of about $1.1 million, I-CAR’s worst financial performance since 1999 when it lost $900,000.

Incoming I-CAR board chairman John Edelen, an Allstate Insurance executive, expressed support for McGee’s leadership, and said staff and I-CAR’s finance committee have developed a “contingency plan” that will be “activated in 90 days to mitigate further deterioration of our financial condition should we be unable to reverse this adverse revenue trend.” 

Technical information shared

During his presentation, McGee also said one of the services I-CAR offers the industry is a fair amount of technical information available at no charge through the “Technical Information” section of the I-CAR website (www.i-car.com).

But I-CAR’s annual meeting also offers attendees several dozen “tech clinics,” one-hour presentations on a variety of topics by representatives of the automakers or industry vendors.

Always among the most popular of these clinics is the one put on by General Motors. During the session this year, GM’s Bob Hartman reminded attendees that all of his company’s collision repair information is now available free through a website (www.gmgoodwrench.com).

To access the information, click on “GM Parts and Accessories” from the home page, then “GM Collision Parts” (in the column on the left of the page), then “Collision Technical Repair Information.” Once you agree to the “Terms of Use,” all of GM’s collision repair information is available by model, including body-related service bulletins, breakdown of VIN information, frame procedures. and a matrix showing the reparability of the various types of steel used on GM vehicles.

On the topic of those steels, Hartman said beginning with new and redesigned models in 2009 and beyond, GM will be marking metal parts with a symbol to indicate what type of steel they are. A wrench symbol followed by “DP,” for example, will indicate dual-phase steel; “LS” will indicate laminated steel, etc. The symbols will correspond to the matrix available at the website that explains what the symbol means, and a technician can then download the repair procedures.

Hartman said he believes such markings will be similar to those currently used on plastic parts, and the die marks used on GM rails to indicate sectioning locations, in that they will help give technicians the information they need to make proper repairs.

With laminated steel, for example, MIG welding should not be used because the layer of material sandwiched between the two thin layers of steel can separate during the welding process, resulting in a weld that may look fine but may not hold, Hartman said. More than 20 GM vehicles use such laminated steel, he said, which should be repaired using rivet bonding; the parts, when ordered, he said, come with instructions and the approved rivets.

Awards presented

I-CAR also presents awards at its annual meeting to various instructors and volunteers in each of its regions. But a number of national awards were presented as well. Outgoing board chairman Robby Robbs presented the “I-CAR Chairman’s Award” to Chuck Sulkala for his years of service to I-CAR. Sulkala is a past chairman of I-CAR and one of the four founding trustees of the I-CAR Education Foundation.

Also during the meeting, Nick Verona presented the second annual “Russ Verona Memorial Award,” which is named in honor of Nick’s father, an Illinois shop owner who was involved with I-CAR and the Foundation from their inceptions until his death in 2006. The award was presented to Jimmy and Julia Suppe, the second-generation owners of Florida Auto Body, Inc., in Fort Lauderdale. The Suppes chair the Broward County I-CAR committee, and earlier this year organized an industry event that raised more than $12,000 for the I-CAR Education Foundation’s efforts.

John Yoswick is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore., who has been writing about the automotive industry since 1988.

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