PHOENIX—The Arizona Tire and Service Dealers Association is tired of seeing good automotive service technicians graduate from the state's trade schools, then leave Arizona to find work. Like most dealers throughout the U.S., the group's members have used classified ads in local papers and help wanted signs in their display windows to recruit qualified techs. But those methods have yielded no long-term solutions for finding and retaining employees.
Now, the ATSDA is turning to a centuries-old idea—apprenticeships—to solve its labor shortage problem and recruit auto service techs.
The group introduced the program to its members in October and already has placed an apprentice with a shop, according to ATSDA Executive Director April Becerra. She said the association's goal is to place 30 apprentices during the first year.
The group finds candidates from job placement agencies and local high schools. A potential apprentice, who must have a high school diploma or GED, is first interviewed by Ms. Becerra and another ATSDA member, then is hooked up with a local tire dealership and assigned to an experienced technician.
ATSDA members pay the association an annual $200 participation fee to cover administrative costs, Ms. Becerra said. Apprentices are responsible for paying for tools but can receive state grants to pay for classes. "All we ask of the apprentice is that they show up to work, they try hard and they take these classes outside of the work hour," she said.
Class time amounts to no more than one required automotive class per semester. Apprentices can meet that either by attending a local college or ATSDA seminars.
The program is divided into two separate curricula: "Undercar Specialist" and "Automotive Mechanic." An individual working full time at 40 hours per week can complete the first category, Undercar Specialist, in two years and Automotive Mechanic in three years, Ms. Becerra said.
The curricula have levels of training, starting with the most basic work. Apprentices must pass Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certification to advance to the next level, she said.
Undercar Specialist requires training in tires and wheels and in steering and suspension work. Apprentices then choose additional course work from three of the following areas: engine repair; manual drivetrain and axles; transmission work; and heating and air conditioning.
To motivate apprentices to stay in the program, participants will receive pay raises every six months, Ms. Becerra said.
"(ATSDA members) are looking at their future—they need technicians later," she said. "Their technicians aren't going to be around forever, so they're grooming the next generation of technicians."
After completing Undercar Specialist, an apprentice graduates to journeyman and is guaranteed a wage of $12.02 per hour, Ms. Becerra said. The next course, Automotive Mechanic, focuses on engine performance and electronic systems and can guarantee an apprentice a wage of $14.44 per hour upon completion.
The ATSDA is using job placement agencies to find apprentices and will promote the program to some high schools that still offer auto service courses, according to Ms. Becerra.
Part of the reason Arizona has a tech labor shortage is that most school systems have cut auto repair courses due to rising costs, said ATSDA President Rob Slagle, general manager of S & S Tire Co. in Peoria, Ariz.
Teenagers interested in cars aren't exposed to proper training unless they enroll in a trade school, Mr. Slagle said. However, tuitions at automotive trade schools run as high as $15,000 for an 18-month program, he added.
"We realized that there's not a whole lot we can do to solve the problem today," Mr. Slagle said. "There's a lot of stealing of technicians from one store to the next. But what we thought is that, two or three years down the road, we would like to see more technicians coming from the high schools."
The ATSDA began developing the program in early 1999, Ms. Becerra said, after a task force it had appointed to study the tech shortage problem recommended apprenticeships as the best solution.
Before it created the program's standards and guidelines, the association searched the Internet to find if any other automotive or tire associations offered apprenticeships, but found none. The group consulted the Arizona Department of Labor for assistance in developing the program and became certified to offer it in September.
Though Ms. Becerra acknowledged the idea of training apprentices has almost died out, the ATSDA is confident it's the best way to prepare the next generation of auto service techs.
"We know we can't have these guys who've been with us 15 or 20 years forever," she said. "It took them 15 to 20 years to be as good as they are. We can't wait until they're gone to think we can replace them."