Audi of America has ripped a page from Major League Baseball's playbook by setting up a farm system to maintain a steady supply of talent.
A nationwide network of more than two dozen junior colleges -- called the Audi Education Partnership -- intends to address one of dealers' biggest problems: a shortage of qualified service techs.
"We're at 3,200 service techs right now in our dealer network," said Matt Shepanek, manager of technical and collision training for Audi of America. "But in order to meet the needs of dealers in just a few years, because of our growth, we're going to need 4,500."
In 2016, the program's inaugural year, the partnership generated 50 service techs for Audi dealerships. This year, Shepanek says the aim is at least 200.
The junior colleges choose to participate with Audi at one of two levels. At the basic level the schools receive marketing and training materials as well as access to the brand's "learning management" system.
At the more advanced level, called premium plus, Audi donates a vehicle, an engine, specialized scanning tools, a wire repair kit and other special tooling, along with the marketing materials. In return, participating schools agree to hold job fairs for those interested in automotive repair, with special consideration given to Audi and its dealers.
Audi also helps with the curriculum, though Shepanek said the schools are free to pursue their own programs.
At some East Coast schools, for example, students go through a basic automotive program, and then take a six-week course in which they receive Audi-specific information. At some schools in Florida, training takes place over 18 months while the student is employed at a dealership. Students attend class two days a week.
Michael Victori, 23, graduated from the Audi program at the end of January. He is now a service technician at Audi Mendham in Mendham, N.J.
"School was over on Tuesday and I went to work on Wednesday," Victori said. "For what it was, I think it was good. I like that I had access to courses through Audi while I was in school. And you had all your [prerequisites] ready by the time you were finished."
Like most automakers, Audi has felt the decline in interest in auto repair as a career among younger generations. Experts say the industry could be short as many as 25,000 service techs by the end of the decade. Meanwhile, Audi's U.S. sales have doubled since 2010 and it owns a streak of 90 consecutive months of year-over-year sales gains. Those additional vehicles on the road will eventually need to be serviced, Shepanek said.
"We're searching like everybody else" for people interested in becoming service technicians, he said. "What we're trying to do is give a pool of talent to the dealers that they can choose to hire."