The problem was a familiar one in the automotive repair business: High-school students interested in cars didn't always see the demand and opportunities for technicians capable of fixing today's sophisticated vehicles. Worse yet, high-school auto repair students who wanted to advance to post-secondary colleges and trade schools didn't know about a quality junior-college automotive program right in their back yard. Consequently, the cost of attending out-of-town schools discouraged capable kids from pursing automotive careers. Or, it put additional financial burden on kids eager to enter the industry.
The solution was ``Focus on the Future.'' This program, conceived and implemented by a handful of dedicated shop owners in southern Illinois, demonstrates the kind of can-do spirit that eventually will turn the industry's image around.
Focus on the Future was the brainchild of Paul Stock and fellow members of an Automotive Service Association (ASA) chapter in Illinois across the river from St. Louis, Missouri. Mr. Stock, who owns Stock's Underhood Specialists in Belleville, Ill., is a veteran drivability technician and part-time automotive instructor.
He also has firsthand experience with the slow-changing attitudes many educators have about careers in auto repair.
In the late 1960's, Mr. Stock's guidance counselor discouraged him from entering an automotive trade school simply because he was in the top one-third of his class. Because the counselor insisted he was too bright for auto repair, Mr. Stock studied drafting. But after working several years as a draftsman, he felt so restless and unchallenged he began taking automotive courses and eventually changed careers.
Regular readers know I've been urging them to recruit and groom well-rounded techs who are thinkers, readers and good communicators. Mr. Stock also believes that for the industry to prosper, this new breed of technician must replace the ``grease monkeys.''
(There's an incredible but noteworthy coincidence here. Several years ago, I told TIRE BUSINESS readers about a forward-thinking shop manager in the Midwest who had no patience for techs who couldn't spell electricity correctly on work orders. Mr. Stock used to work for this man!)
With the ``whole-person'' philosophy in mind, he and fellow ASA members created Focus on the Future as a combined technical competition and science project. It challenges local high-schoolers to learn and demonstrate all the skills needed to become well-rounded techs of the future.
First, the kids' hands-on skills are tested by a requirement to fabricate a concise model of an automotive system or subsystem on a 3'x3' display board. Because electronics are so prevalent on today's vehicles, students must present an electronically controlled or electronically enhanced system, Mr. Stock said.
When Focus on the Future debuted last year, the winning entry was an electronic fuel injection system. This year's winner was an anti-lock brake system (ABS).
A finished project board resembles a display students create for science fairs. Although the system on the board needn't operate, it must be technically complete with all components labeled correctly. The display also is graded on neatness and organization.
Second, students must demonstrate mental diagnostic abilities and communication skills by writing an extensive report on the theory and operation of the system on the project board. The report has to discuss the kinds of failures that occur on the system as well as proper diagnostic routines for pinpointing and repairing these failures. Where applicable, students must detail specialized tools and equipment needed to diagnose and repair the subject system.
Mr. Stock said that in addition to technical accuracy and thoroughness, the written report is graded on neatness, organization and spelling. To emphasize the importance of seeking solutions only from qualified sources, students must cite at least two authoritative sources of the information presented in each written report.
Finally, competitors must further demonstrate verbal skills by answering judges' questions about their project boards and written reports. They also must intelligently and concisely explain the importance of ASE certification and the purpose of trade organizations such as ASA.
So far, the written and verbal skills have been the most daunting part of the competition, Mr. Stock admitted.
In my next column, I'll discuss reactions to Focus on the Future, the impact it has made on one student and the way it's forging a critical bridge between high-school and college-level automotive training programs.