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."