WASHINGTON-The waiting rooms at automotive service shops have become increasingly crowded, and may soon get even busier. The nation is facing a shortage of about 60,000 technicians to work on cars, which have evolved in recent years into highly computerized items. The problem is expected to worsen when new federal Clean Air Act requirements that enhance emissions inspections in many cities take effect in January.
``Many, many vehicles are expected to fail these tests and to require repairs to emissions control systems,'' said Geoff Sundstrom, a spokesman for the American Automobile Association.
``AAA is very concerned that motorists have access to technicians with the ability to fix these problems the first time. Right now we are not confident that enough trained personnel are available to service these vehicles.''
The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which administers the Clean Air requirements, said 60,000 more technicians are needed to meet the demand.
Chuck Groves, special training programs manager for the customer service division of Ford Motor Co., said the problem is unquestionably due to the growing complexity of automobiles.
In 1990 models, just 18 percent of a car's functional pieces were controlled by computer. Just four model years later, that amount has increased to about 83 percent, according to Mr. Groves.
``We have gone from what was a mechanical fix to now a diagnostic fix, and the one will not supplant the other,'' he said. ``There is a very disciplined approach today for computer-based skills and math skills. The approach to repair is radically different.''
In addition to the shortage of people, some industry experts say that many of the technicians already on the job just don't have the skills needed to fix advanced electronics-such as transmissions and antilock braking systems-and other technical components.
According to the EPA, the average technician is six to eight years behind in training.
Mr. Groves said specially trained technicians will be needed to service complicated air conditioning systems that will replace old versions that pollute more. Technicians with unique expertise will be needed to handle alternative-fuel vehicles and ``smart car'' technology.
The good news is this creates a readily identifiable industry that job seekers can enter.
A technician typically needs a two-year degree from a technical school. Starting salaries are about $25,000 to $35,000 a year, and more skilled technicians can earn as much as $75,000 annually.
At the recent Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills contest held in Washington, auto repair students from high schools around the country competed to diagnose and repair 12 cars.
U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich told the aspiring technicians: ``You can no longer these days be an auto mechanic without being a qualified technician, an engineer.
``These are tough jobs, these are high-skill jobs, these are good paying jobs.''
Ms. Zagaroli is an Associated Press writer.