Sputtering auto education leads to skills breakdown

New techs don't have training they need, service managers say

8-point inspection
Certification standards from the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation stress broad training across 8 areas, rather than in-depth training in just a few.
1. Engine repair
2. Automatic transmission
3. Manual transmission, front- and rear-drive axles
4. Front end, suspension and steering systems
5. Brakes and braking systems
6. Electrical systems
7. Heating and air conditioning
8. Engine tuneup/performance

UPDATED: 5/20/14 3:42 pm ET - adds link

Dealership service managers are complaining about a rusty old clunker that's gumming up their operations: America's vocational education system.

Traditional schools are steering more students toward college with curricula heavy on science, math and technology. Meanwhile, service managers say, neglected vocational and industrial arts programs are turning out a generation of auto mechanics whose skills aren't keeping pace with the cars they're assigned to fix.

"The testing offered in many states to become a certified auto mechanic does not coincide with what is being done in today's auto shop," says Rick Castanos, parts and service director at Varsity Lincoln in Wixom, Mich., and Varsity Ford in Ann Arbor, Mich. "It's dated testing. ... The level of questions they have is based on vehicles that date back to the 1970s and '80s."

The result is a skills gap that is making it difficult for dealerships to find and retain qualified mechanics, and for new graduates to find work.

John Creager, service and parts director at Hall Motor Co. in Lakeview, Ore., estimates the average mechanic enters the industry with less than 20 percent of the required knowledge.

"I recently hired a guy who graduated at the top of his class from WyoTech," said Creager, referring to the Wyoming Technical Institute, a chain of trade schools that offer degree programs in a variety of automotive fields. "He quit after about a week and told me that it was nothing like what he had learned at school."

"We're certainly aware that there is a shortage of mechanics in the industry," said Kent Jenkins, a spokesman for WyoTech's parent, Corinthian Colleges Inc. "We literally have dozens of employers that consistently recruit our graduates because our training prepares people well."

Demand for highly skilled automotive technicians and mechanics is expected to grow as vehicle sales continue their rebound and automotive systems become more complex. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment in the automotive repair sector will increase 9 percent from 2012 to 2022.

But the traditional training grounds will have a tough time meeting that demand. Parents concerned about their children's long-term job prospects are steering them away from the auto trades. "More parents believe that in order for their children to be successful, they must go to college," said Castanos, who, after graduating from high school, worked as a mechanic for several years before going into management.

"It's seen as a dirty job," he said.

Meanwhile, in 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act incentivized schools to concentrate on core subjects such as math, science and technology to receive federal funding. As a result, vocational courses such as shop, machining and welding were either reduced or cut altogether.

"It is much cheaper to stuff kids into a classroom than fund a fully stocked, industry-standard shop," said Adam Manley, assistant professor of career and technical education at Western Michigan University, in an e-mail interview.

According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education, the total number of high school credits earned through career and technical education programs decreased to an average of 3.6 in 2009 -- the most recent data available -- from 4.2 in 1990. In automotive-related subjects, the average credits earned in repair, transportation and engineering courses dropped a combined 4.7 credits over the same period.

"To drop an entire credit shows a significant change in course-taking among high school students," Manley said. "The only reason many CTE programs still exist is because they are able to offer academic as well as CTE credit."

Jacy Headley works on an engine. At top, instructor Terry Akers MIG welds at Oakland Schools Technical Campus Southwest in Wixom, Mich.

'Bursting at the seams'

Those programs that have survived have struggled to keep up with the times. Many schools aren't able to afford the type of equipment that dealer service technicians use to diagnose problems. "Just the IDS alone to diagnose a car is $4,000," says Castanos, referring to Integrated Diagnostic System hardware used in auto shops. "And then you have to pay the software licensing every month."

Without the benefit of high-tech training, there's little that students with potential can pick up on their own these days. The concept of the shade-tree mechanic is foreign to a generation that grew up on social media and video games, said Creager.

"You don't see kids changing oil in their backyards anymore," he said. "As far as doing a tuneup where everything was accessible, it used to be pretty simple to change [spark] plugs and fuel filters," he said. "But some of the vehicles now, you have to pull the upper intake off just to gain access to them."

Even the automakers' professional programs, such as General Motors Automotive Service Educational Program or Ford Accelerated Credential Training, aren't providing enough updated, hands-on training, Creager said. "To get the real knowledge, one has to come into the dealership world and either shadow a technician or learn by somebody that knows," he said.

Therein lies a challenge, says Damon Friend, transportation instructor at Oakland Schools Technical Campus Southwest in Wixom.

Friend says the enrollment numbers in his class couldn't be better. "We're bursting at the seams with students who are interested in auto tech classes," he says. He also has a list of employers who regularly contact him, looking for graduates willing to work.

But age poses a hurdle. For insurance reasons, many dealerships require that their mechanics be at least 18 years old. "But the kids don't graduate until they're very close to that age, and by the time they do, their plans might change," he said.

Says Friend: "These dealerships would have more kids working for them if they could just relax the age rule a little bit, even if it's just by six months."

'A great field'

Friend said his students generally land jobs that pay between $14 and $20 per hour. Most service technicians work full time, and many work evenings or weekends, with a chance for overtime. "This is a great field, where jobs are needed. You can make $60,000 a year."

One of his students, Travis Tank, 17, a first-year student at Oakland Tech, has landed a position as a service technician at Castanos' shop in Wixom.

Tank, who has a certificate in Michigan for auto brakes and braking systems, said he was shocked when he received word by e-mail that he got the job. The son of an auto mechanic, Tank said he had been turned down by three other dealerships seeking entry-level mechanics because he was underage.

Tank plans to go to Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, Mich., while continuing to work at the body shop in Wixom, in order to earn his remaining certificates to become a master mechanic, a common path for working mechanics who need night classes to further their training.

That type of continuing-education program is critical for new hires to succeed on the job, says Castanos. "It goes back to experience," he said. "What they're learning at that level is basic auto 101. They're trying to work on more modern cars, and they've got some newer test equipment at Oakland Tech, but they're still light-years away."

There's more to being qualified than a certificate, Castanos said. "Dealerships that work with schools want students with a teacher recommendation, maturity, problem-solving skills and reliability -- as well as a general understanding of electronics and automobile systems."

To refine problem-solving skills and encourage more students to stick with the auto-repair trade, Ford Motor Co. and AAA co-sponsor the annual Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills competition with opportunities for students to win prizes, scholarships, tools and awards.

Contestants qualify by taking a written exam, then move on to a hands-on competition at the state level, which involves diagnosing and repairing a bugged-for-fault Ford vehicle as quickly as possible. Winning teams advance to the national finals in June in Dearborn, Mich., Ford's hometown, where they take a written test and do another hands-on challenge.

The winner receives a scholarship to pursue Ford's Automotive Student Service Educational Training, a two-year associate's degree program at a sponsoring dealership.

Jeff Barber, a Ford field service engineer, says Ford education programs like ASSET and FACT allow students to "continue their automotive education beyond high school and improve their skills for the ever-changing automotive field."

But getting students ready for those programs remains a job for secondary schools. "The schools are responsible for getting their skills together," said Barber. "There was a time when technicians could show up at a dealership with a toolbox to work. Now, they need excellent computer skills, communication skills, written skills, mechanical and electronic skills. This is a highly trained field in which learning about new technologies never stops."

Students work hands-on at the Oakland Schools Technical Campuses in Michigan.

Broad-based curriculum

The National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation, which sets the industry standards for auto-repair curricula used by schools and training programs, has made changes to reflect the changing needs of service departments.

The changes, which took effect last summer, allow secondary-school programs to more effectively use limited instructional time by giving students a broader overview of all automotive systems, rather than an in-depth study of just a few areas. They can then build more specialized knowledge at the postsecondary level.

With vehicles becoming increasingly reliable and durable, employers "need technicians with strong maintenance and light repair skills in addition to strong communication abilities and critical thinking," said NATEF President Trish Serratore.

According to NATEF, the number of accredited high school automotive training programs has hovered around 1,800 in recent years, but it hasn't been easy to maintain that level, she said.

"Today's auto technology programs struggle to remain open. They are expensive to maintain and take up a lot space. In addition, increased academic requirements make hours available for career and technical education limited," she said.

Serratore calls on dealers to step forward to provide students with more opportunities.

"It is essential that dealers get involved with the local high school automotive technology program to make sure those skills are being taught, for they are your future employees," she said. "If dealers, as taxpayers and employers, don't become involved and support the local program with participation on advisory committees, career days, job shadowing and intern opportunities, school administrators will close more programs when instructors retire or enrollment drops."

GM, for its part, donates about 400 current model-year vehicles annually to NATEF-accredited programs. "These vehicle donations continue to provide technicians with hands-on learning opportunities that are needed for technicians to evolve with the fast pace of learning that is required in the automotive industry," said Robert Wheeler, communications manager at GM.

GM's technician training programs, he says, are based on current dealer training requirements, mixed with in-dealership work experience. "Upon graduation, the student has attained about 80 percent of the current dealer training requirements," he said.

Hands-on experience can be the difference maker. Josh Helinski, 17, a first-year student at Oakland Tech, was passed over for the job that Tank ultimately received at Varsity Lincoln.

Castanos said Helinski "hadn't done enough work outside the classroom," as opposed to Tank, who grew up fixing cars in his father's garage. "He also didn't have any certifications" on specific systems, Castanos added.

Helinski took certification tests for brakes and braking systems but fell short of passing by three questions, which he attributes to his lack of advanced training.

"The cars we work on [at school] are from the early 2000s," he said.

8-point inspection
Certification standards from the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation stress broad training across 8 areas, rather than in-depth training in just a few.
1. Engine repair
2. Automatic transmission
3. Manual transmission, front- and rear-drive axles
4. Front end, suspension and steering systems
5. Brakes and braking systems
6. Electrical systems
7. Heating and air conditioning
8. Engine tuneup/performance
You can reach Andrew Thurlow at athurlow@crain.com

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