Marzook Obeie took some ribbing from his friends when he said he wanted to be an automotive mechanic. Too much work, some said. Not enough money, others said.
But Obeie, 17, had his mind made up. 'You've got to do what you want to do,' Obeie says, 'and I want to work on cars.'
Automakers, facing a growing shortage of qualified technicians, support Obeie's decision.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says auto mechanics will be among the most in-demand workers until at least 2006. Between 1996, when a study on professions in demand was written, and 2006, 96,000 new mechanics will be added to the current pool of about 780,000. An additional 285,000 jobs will have to be filled as a result of normal attrition.
This shortage prompted General Motors Chairman Jack Smith, in 1995, to call on the auto industry to meet the challenge of getting enough technicians.
The industry responded two years later, mounting an unusual alliance to convince America's youth that a career in automotive repair is respectable.
Automotive Youth Educational Systems is a group made up of representatives from GM, DaimlerChrysler, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. and Volkswagen of America Inc., which oversees a network of 1,036 participating dealers in 26 states.
'Changing the image from mechanic to technician is one of the main objectives' of the program, says Dave Cleveland, Toyota's representative on the organization's staff.
There is no guarantee that Automotive Youth Educational Systems will be able to satisfy automakers' unceasing demand for qualified service technicians.
The group operates on a slender $2 million-per-year administrative budget, says Don Gray, Automotive Youth Educational Systems president. And just 1,162 students, including graduates, are involved in Automotive Youth Educational Systems so far.
But Automotive Youth Educational Systems wants to expand its contact with students beyond high school, says Gray. There are plans to introduce students as young as 6 years old to automobile dealerships.
'When they're in school, kids often take tours of the local police department or fire department,' Gray says. 'Why not take them on a tour of the dealership, let them see what goes on there?'
With headquarters in Troy, Mich., Automotive Youth Educational Systems helps dealers connect with local high schools, where the dealers then sit on technical and vocational curriculum planning boards, fund improvements to the schools' auto shops and give students a place to work once they've graduated.
Interns and mentors
Students get involved in their junior year of high school. After taking technical courses during the year, they apply for summer internships at local dealerships.
Once a student wins an internship, he or she - more than 90 percent of the participants are male - is assigned a mentor. The mentor is often a service manager or master technician at the dealership, who can walk the student through the dealership and act as a sounding board for any problems the student might encounter.
Obeie and Saif Algahim, who both graduated this spring from Detroit's Golightly Technical Vocational Center, work in the service department at Friendly Jeep-Eagle in Warren, Mich.
Friendly, like many dealerships, has had problems recruiting and keeping technicians, says Bill Stanley, the service manager there.
'We've got a shortage. It's a chronic problem. Every dealer has the same problem: finding good, qualified people,' Stanley says. 'And it's not going to get any better.'
He tried newspaper advertisements, attended job fairs at local community colleges and promised in-house training for master tech certification to employees who stay on. But the Automotive Youth Educational Systems program has been his best resource, Stanley says.
'When we interview prospective service employees, we look for attitude, someone who says, `I want to be a mechanic,'' he says, adding, 'Students who take part in Automotive Youth Educational Systems come ready to work, they're not just killing time.'
More than money
Algahim, 19, says the experience and training he gets, whether learning to read a computer diagnostic machine or changing the oil on a car, is more important than the money he is paid.
'I always wanted to work on cars. I love cars,' Algahim says. 'This is great. My parents are as happy as I am.'
While the Golightly school happens to be in a poor area of Detroit, Automotive Youth Educational Systems is not a social program, says Gray, the group's president; it is a business program.
School selection is driven by the area's dealer population. If there is a financially needy school or a school with historically strong academic programs and an interest in vocational education, but there are no dealers nearby, Automotive Youth Educational Systems will steer clear, Gray says.
Yale Gieszl, who as Toyota executive vice president brought that automaker on board with Automotive Youth Educational Systems, says the program is more than a guaranteed job for high school kids.
'It addresses some of the problems young people are facing today finding an area they can focus their life's work on,' Gieszl says. 'We are reaching out to high school kids, and we are making a major contribution to society.'
Michael Woodyard is an Automotive News staff reporter based in Detroit