While few parents probably prod their daughters to grow up to be mechanics, industry officials say it's likely they don't realize how good a career it actually is. ``The perception is: `Why do you want to be a grease monkey when you could get a law degree or become an accountant?' '' said David Dodds, head of training for Ford Motor Co.
But auto-repair jobs pay anywhere from $30,000 to $75,000 a year, with the highest salaries going to those with the most computer skills, he said.
Many believe the ``grease monkey'' image is to blame for a crisis in the auto-repair industry, which is desperately trying to fill thousands of high-paying, high-tech jobs.
According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), in Michigan alone more than 60,000 new techs will be needed by the turn of the century.
A growing shortage of qualified techs means faulty repairs, with angry motorists becoming more common, said officials from Ford and the AAA. Together, they sponsor an annual nationwide competition for automotive students that culminates in Washington, D.C., with a troubleshooting contest.
``The same moms and pops discouraging their sons and daughters from becoming auto mechanics are having a hard time finding a competent me-chanic,'' said James Dunst, who heads the contest.
Poor repair work was the No. 1 complaint of AAA members last year, according to Paul Kindschy, the association's director of national road services. ``Poor technicians who can't perform proper repairs mean more breakdowns for our mem-bers and more road-service calls,'' he said.
Repairs on sophisticated engines-which have more than 80 percent of their functions controlled by computers-require high-tech skills not taught in high school automotive classes, Mr. Dunst said, adding: ``The majority of high school auto teachers are teaching '50's and '60's technology.''
The demand for mechanics is rising dramatically as tailpipe tests are expanded to dozens of smoggy cities across the country under the federal Clean Air Act. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for example, estimates that at least 60,000 new technicians will be needed to correct emission problems.
To buff up the image of service techs, an ASE spokesman said the association even works with Hollywood.
``We have an agent to work with producers of TV shows and motion pictures,'' he noted, ``so that whenever there's going to be a repair shop scene, it's not a greasy guy in a beanie.''