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Panel beaters repair and replace motor vehicle bodywork which has been damaged in an accident.
There are over 2.5 million motor vehicles on Britain’s roads and every year, tens of thousands of these vehicles will become involved in an accident or will be deliberately damaged.
Some vehicles will be so badly damaged that they have to be destroyed but thankfully, the majority can be fixed. This process will often involve repairing the bodywork of the car, which usually bears the brunt of any impact. This is where the bodyshop industry (and the role of a panel beater) becomes relevant. Crash repairs carried out by the UK bodyshop industry are worth a staggering £5 billion a year – this truly is big business!
A panel beater is responsible for repairing cars (and other vehicles) which have been damaged in accidents or have suffered from vandalism. They use specialist techniques and equipment to repair, and sometimes replace, damaged bodywork.
They work on vehicles suffering from damage of different kinds, from ones which have nearly been written off, to ones suffering from minor imperfections. Whilst the vast majority of work is accident-related, panel beaters also carry out cosmetic work on behalf of owners keen to give their beloved cars the motoring equivalent of a face lift!
Panel beaters work in the automotive industry and are usually employed by specialist body repair workshops. These are either independently owned or operated by a particular motor insurance company. Workshops usually have an outdoor section where vehicles are assessed but a panel beater will spend most of his or her time indoors.
Larger companies may also employ mobile panel beaters, who carry out more minor jobs like respraying, paintwork, and minor dent removal at the customer’s home. This is often a more convenient option since the customer does not need to bring the vehicle to the body repair shop.
In the past, the role of a panel beater was carried out by vehicle mechanics as part of their day-to-day work. However, given the increasing emphasis placed on technology in panel refurbishment and repair, as well as the wide variety of vehicles on the road, the specialist role of panel beater has become imperative to the motor industry today.
Traditionally, panel beating involved the use of a dolly (a sort of portable anvil) and a hammer, both of which were used to smooth out dents in the bodywork of the car. This usually involved removing the trim and fittings from the inside of the panel in order to access the back of the panel and beat it back into its original shape.
This was understandably a rather time-consuming process. Although dollies and hammers are still in use today, bodywork repair is usually carried out using a far less intrusive process, which is also more cost-effective.
The modern technique, known as Miracle Panel Repair, relies upon sophisticated machinery to repair the damage from the outside, thus negating the need to strip and refit the interior. In recognition of the skilled and technical nature of the work, panel beaters are now often referred to as panel technicians.
Entry-level salaries are usually in the region of £7,000 to £13,500 per year. This may sound low but you should bear in mind that this salary is for a trainee, who will usually be learning “on the job” and combining time at college with hands-on practical experience.
Once qualified (this usually takes about three years), a panel technician can expect to earn between £19,000 and £22,000. Senior panel technicians, who have significant experience in the body repair industry, can earn in excess of £30,000, whilst managers can expect to earn up to £40,000.
Although the precise role of a panel beater will vary depending on the repair shop, the following tasks are typical:
- Assessing a vehicle to establish the extent of damage
- Based on the initial assessment, deciding whether to repair or replace bodywork
- Removing damaged panels
- Stripping and refitting trim and panel interior
- Refitting new/repaired panels
- Repairing damaged bodywork using traditional dolly and hammer or more modern techniques
- Repairing small dents, holes or corroded areas using a compound filler
During the repair process, specific tasks may include:
- Using jig alignment equipment
- Using a Strong Puller to pull out any damage to semi-structural vehicle parts, such as the wheel arch or the bonnet
- Using a Line Puller to pull out damage to non-structural (cosmetic) panels
- Using an Easy Puller to repair minor dents and to refine the work performed by the Strong and Line Pullers on other panels.
A paint technician will usually be employed by the bodyshop but the panel technician may be expected to prepare the vehicle for them in the following way:
- Removing existing paint and corrosion
- Ensuring the area to be resprayed is clean
- Masking off the parts of the vehicle which are not going to be resprayed.
A certain amount of administration and customer interaction is also required:
- Keeping a record of work carried out and time taken
- Liaising with the customer or insurance company
- Providing quotations and estimations
Most employers will be looking for a combination of relevant qualifications and experience when searching for a potential panel beater. There are two main ways to enter the industry, both of which will result in useful qualifications.
The first is to complete a college course relevant to panel beating. City & Guilds offers three relevant courses, namely Vehicle Body and Paint Operations, Body and Paint Maintenance, and Vehicle Maintenance and Repair. Further information about all City & Guilds Automotive Qualifications can be found on the City & Guilds website.
Two BTEC qualifications are also relevant. These are the National Certificate and Diploma in Vehicle Technology and the BTEC National Certificate and Diploma in Engineering (Automotive). Details of these courses can be found on the Government’s Diploma website.
Whilst a college course in a practical subject is likely to provide you with some useful hands-on experience, it will be mainly classroom-based. If you would prefer to learn “on the job” rather than in the classroom, an apprenticeship may be a better route to take.
To secure an apprenticeship with a body repair shop, you will usually need GCSE qualifications. Maths, English, Science, and technology-related subjects are particularly useful. Your day-to-day job would be to assist an experienced panel technician. Over the course of two to three years, you will work your way through units which will teach you about:
- removal and repair of panels
- refit of mechanical and electrical trim
- repair of paint defects and refinishing
Upon completion of these units, you will receive the NVQ in Vehicle Body and Paint Operations (Level 2 & 3). You can find out more on the Apprenticeships website or the website of the Institute of the Motor Industry.
Thatcham, a well-respected not-for-profit organisation, which is officially known as The Motor Insurance Repair Research Centre, runs its own apprenticeship programme for crash repair technicians. This course is particularly respected by employers as it focuses upon the latest techniques and repair methods and has been devised by experts from the research centre. You can find out more about the Thatcham Apprentice Programme on their website. These qualifications are nationally recognised.
Panel beaters need to have:
- Good organisational skills
- The ability to pay attention to detail
- A commitment to excellence
- A flexible attitude
- The ability to be adaptable
The job involves numerous activities and panel beaters will need to be comfortable with a wide range of vehicles. One minute they may be removing a scratch from a Bentley and the next they may be bringing a tatty Transit van back from the brink of destruction. The same degree of precision and care will be required for both vehicles.
If you become a panel beater, you will often be working as part of a team. Therefore, the following qualities will be useful:
- Strong interpersonal skills
- Good communication skills
- The ability to work without supervision
- The ability to stay motivated in all circumstances
- The ability to work to tight deadlines
- The ability to remain calm under pressure and maintain high standards at all times
Panel beating involves manual labour and requires a reasonable level of physical strength and stamina. Most body repair shops operate during normal working hours (Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm), although many will open at 8am and may close early on Fridays. Larger bodyshops may be open for longer and some operate a split shift system (such as 6am-2pm and 2pm-10pm), which allows them to stay open for longer.
Provided equipment is always used properly, there is not a great deal of risk associated with the role. However, workplace accidents are more common in a workshop environment than in an office.
It is important that panel technicians use personal protective equipment and follow safety procedures to protect themselves from the hazardous substances used whilst stripping and respraying bodywork.
Trainee panel beaters are not expected to have any experience (see Qualifications section above). Otherwise, individuals should work for two years in the bodywork trade in order to gain employment. For those looking to become senior panel technicians or hold a specialist role, five years in the industry is necessary. Increasingly, employers are placing an emphasis on qualifications, as well as experience, when recruiting.
If you have been working in the body repair industry for some time but do not hold any qualifications, you may be able to benefit from accreditation through the Institute of the Motor Industry (IMI). The IMI runs a scheme, called Automotive Technician Accreditation (ATA), which allows experienced body fitters to receive accreditation by attending a short assessment course (which will last for a maximum of nine days). There are three levels: Service Maintenance Technician, Diagnostic Technician, and Master Technician.
There are hundreds of potential employers in the bodyshop industry. These include independent garages and bodyshops which are privately owned – of which there are over 500 in London alone! These workshops may carry out a full range of automotive work and repairs, with bodywork being just one element of their business. The workforce may be fairly small and individuals might choose to specialise in a particular area but will also be expected to carry out general repairs and maintenance.
At the other end of the spectrum are dedicated bodyshops which are either approved or directly owned by insurance companies. Employers include Nationwide Crash Repair Centres Ltd and RBS Insurance, which operates 15 accident repair centres. Roles will be more specialised in this set-up, but the variety of vehicle types worked upon will be of a similar size.
There are also opportunities for panel beaters in vehicle dealerships, which might specialise in a particular make of car. Finally, customisation bodyshops and vehicle restorers also require the services of panel beaters.
Most panel beaters begin their careers as trainees before progressing to become senior panel technicians after approximately five years. After this point, an individual may progress to become a bodyshop manager or advisor, which is a role concerned with supervising. Though better paid, this role is usually less hands-on in terms of bodywork repair.
Also known as…
- Panel Technician
- Vehicle Technician
- Body Repair Technician
- Motor Vehicle Body Repairer
What’s it really like?
40-year-old Adrian Finley started working as a panel beater twenty years ago. He has provided a brief insight into the industry:
“I started out in this industry in the 1980s and have steadily worked my way up so I’m now a Senior Partner in A&A Autorefinishers. We are an Auto Body Repair and Coatings Facility based in Hay-on-Wye, on the England-Wales border, and we have 21 years of experience in the panel and car painting industry.
Things have changed a lot over the years, and technology plays a really important role in what we do. Nowadays, panel technicians use the latest technology to carry out repairs and alterations. The trainees follow a three year process to become fully qualified. There is so much to learn and many techniques to master.
Once qualified, individuals need to keep up to date with new technology and, especially if you run your own business, this can be expensive both in terms of the specialist equipment you need and the training that goes with it.
I love my job and that is really important. This is a profession that requires a lot of patience and dedication. As a panel beater, you need to be passionate about your work.
A typical day for me would involve stripping panels and either repairing or replacing them. I carry out the welding and fabrication. It can be a very messy job, especially if there is a lot of rust involved. Sometimes it takes hours to get the bodywork just right, and you’ve got to be able to take pride in doing a good job. Being a small business, the hours can be long. Sometimes we work through the night to make sure the job is completed.
Having said that, I get a great feeling of satisfaction when I return a damaged vehicle to its former glory! I appreciate the opportunity of working with rare and valuable cars”.