Ann Lyons taught sixth grade in the small southeastern Ohio town of Oak Hill for a quarter century and was happily grooming her own high-school-age son for college when he dropped the bombshell.
Lafe Lyons decided to switch from a pre-college curriculum to the automotive technician training program at the regional vocational high school, Buckeye Hills Career Center.
'His mother like to died,' says Douglas Crabtree, auto tech instructor at Buckeye Hills. 'But now she's the happiest mother here.'
'Here' was the finals of the annual Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills contest, held at the foot of Capitol Hill in Washington last month. In the glare of national publicity, two-person teams from all 50 states raced to diagnose and repair identically bugged Ford Crown Victorias, which included for the first time faulty airbag sensors.
The event highlighted continuing challenges as well as signs of progress in the struggle by the automotive service industry to attract enough well-qualified technicians.
'Parents don't encourage their children' to enter the field, says David Van Sickle, director of automotive and consumer information for AAA. 'There is a stigma from the past (associated with) 'grease monkeys.' But we're well beyond that now. Parents need to know their kids can make a good living.'
Van Sickle says he believes the highly publicized contest is helping to get the message out that automotive technician is a demanding, computer- oriented job that, after a few years of experience, can yield an annual salary of $60,000 or more.
'I certainly do (believe it) or we would not be doing it. It is very expensive for Ford and AAA,' he says. Scholarships and prizes at state and national levels totaled more than $8 million.
Ron Weiner, president of the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, agrees that the contest has merit, but questions whether it and other programs run by the manufacturers are producing enough recruits.
While estimates of job openings fluctuate, ranging up to 60,000 a year, Weiner says this much is certain: 'There are more jobs than skilled entry-level people to fill them.'
Weiner and others blame the shortage not only on parental resistance but on a range of societal, demographic and economic changes.
Because of increased automotive complexity, fewer young people grow up tinkering with the family car. Farms, corner garages and the armed forces were formerly big sources of would-be mechanics, but all have been downsized.
And taxpayer revolts have forced school budgets to shrink, sometimes leading to elimination of shop classes.
Weiner, whose organization does research on training methods and certifies technicians, says the skills contest is a great showcase for the best students, but it involves young people who decided years ago to get automotive technician training.
He says service dealers - and he includes both auto retailers and independent garages in the category - need to get involved in local schools and start making students aware of career opportunities early on. Institute advisers suggest that the effort begin as early as the fourth grade.
In addition, Weiner says, parents who get vehicles serviced should be shown that service technicians have good and important jobs that perhaps their children would be interested in. 'This is not a bad way to send your kid off,' Weiner says.
'There are a lot more questions than answers' to the technician supply problem, says Weiner. And too often service providers take only a stop-gap approach, raiding one another's personnel, instead of looking for comprehensive, longer-term remedies.
Ron Goldsberry, vice president for parts and service at Ford Motor Co., says his company had mixed emotions about becoming a sponsor of the skills contest, taking over for Chrysler Corp. four years ago. But now he is convinced it has tremendous benefits and is starting to have ripple effects beyond those students who enter the competition.
'There is (still) such low esteem for the whole automotive technology arena' among guidance counselors, teachers and principals, Goldsberry says, but the program helps drive home the point that 'this is a career that is very, very important, very viable, something that can represent tremendous value' to students.
'It's certainly not where we want it to be, but I think again this represents a tremendous platform for us to be able to get this message across,' Goldsberry says.
Service is important to manufacturers because 'it is a much more expensive business proposition' to attract new customers than it is to retain those they already have, he says.
A key factor in retaining customers is 'whether, believe it or not, the vehicle was fixed right the first time, on time,' Goldsberry says. 'And clearly, the biggest factor in whether that vehicle was fixed right the first time, on time, is the quality of the technician.
'So, it's a big, big, big issue for us, and, yeah, we care about it a lot,' Goldsberry says.
Several automakers, including General Motors, Chrysler, Honda and Toyota, are involved with similar competition that is part of the Vocational Industrial Clubs of America Skill Olympics.
Ninety-two students vied in the automotive finals in Kansas City, Mo., last month.
Ford uses its skills contest to help it recruit top students for ASSET, its Automotive Service Student Education Training program, run in conjunction with dealers and educational institutions, usually community colleges.
For two years ASSET students are trained in classes and labs and receive on-site work experience in dealer shops.
Ford says ASSET has a 73 percent graduation rate, and nearly 100 percent of graduates immediately go to work.
Nearly all manufacturers operate comparable programs.
They include General Motors' Automotive Service Education Program, the Chrysler Apprenticeship Program, Toyota's Technical Education Network, Honda's Professional Automotive Career Training and Nissan's Professional Cooperative Apprenticeship Program.
Pat Lundquist, executive director of the National Automotive Technical Education Foundation, an arm of the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, says companies 'really seem to be putting energy and effort into the manufacturer-sponsored programs ... (but) we can always use more.'
A more recent development was the launching two years ago of Youth Education Services, or YES, led by GM.
It's a school-to-work program aimed at getting more interest at the high school level in automotive technician careers.
But Lundquist returns to the theme that parents are the ones who may still need some educating.
'I understand we all want wonderful things for our children. People don't understand what wonderful opportunities are out there' for automotive technicians, she says.
One who does now, Ann Lyons, says, of son Lafe, 'He just wants to be in the automotive industry. ... I think he will be able to advance as far as he wants.'
Lafe and teammate Jamie Hayes finished a strong second to this year's winning team.
Harry Stoffer is a staff reporter for Automotive News in Washington.