Hispanic automotive technicians are a valuable asset to repair shops and form a rapidly growing percentage of the professional auto repair community, according to experts in the auto repair field.
Yet with prejudice, the language barrier and immigration problems, Hispanic technicians face difficult obstacles in obtaining the ongoing training and full-time employment they seek. Tire and auto dealerships, meanwhile, are going begging for skilled professional technicians-a shortage that experts say the large population of Hispanic technicians could redress.
Co-hosted by the National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence (ASE), the Automotive Service Association (ASA) and the National Automobile Dealers Association, the Hispanic Technician Summit in Washington Oct. 1 sought to identify ways to help Hispanic technicians find training and jobs and show repair shop owners how to keep the Hispanic workers they employ.
Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-Texas-who himself worked in a gas station in his youth before returning to school to get his master's degree-pointed out that the U.S. has a shortage of skilled professionals, not just in auto repair but in all fields. This shortage is growing so great as to become a national security problem, he said.
``We have data showing that in the U.S. Defense Department, 50 percent of its personnel two years ago had reached the age where, according to government schedules, they were able to retire,'' Rep. Rodriguez said. ``We're not providing the skilled tradespeople we need right now.''
Rep. Rodriguez urged the audience to work on creating job training and apprenticeship programs to give young people in the work force the training they need. ``Ours is the greatest country in the world,'' he said. ``Part of keeping it that way is making sure we have the skilled workers we need.''
The congressman also urged the audience to give more opportunities to Hispanics to own auto dealerships. There is an ``old-boy network'' among auto dealers, he said-what he called a ``brown-boy'' network as well as a ``white-boy'' one.
``If Mr. Gonzales is successful with one dealership, you give him more,'' he said. ``That's still an old-boy system. You need to give other people a chance to participate.''
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said the question of immigration is at least as important to Hispanic auto technicians as the question of training.
``We have been giving a wink and a nod to illegal immigrants,'' Sen. Chambliss said. ``We need to figure out a way to allow them to participate in our society in a legal way, rather than having them looking over their shoulders all the time.''
Mike Anderson, owner of WagonWorks Collision Center in Alexandria, Va., and a member of the ASA's Collision Division Operations Committee, said he knows firsthand both the headache of losing talented, diligent workers and the heartache of seeing them live under a cloud.
``We had one employee named Michael, who was from El Salvador but had worked in Arizona,'' Mr. Anderson said. ``He was a great employee, but his English was very poor.''
Michael worked at WagonWorks for six months, until he came to Mr. Anderson's office one day with another employee acting as interpreter. ``Michael told me he had to leave,'' he said. ``It turned out he was an illegal alien-all his documents were false. His real name wasn't even Michael.''
The man left Alexandria, and Mr. Anderson never found out what happened to him.
Immigration law is ``a racket,'' he added, with lawyers charging immigrants anywhere from $650 to $15,000 to file the required papers for a green card or citizenship. And there is little employers such as Mr. Anderson can do for an employee with immigration problems. ``I'm not an attorney,'' he said. ``I can fix your car, but immigration is a big deal for us.'' Mr. Anderson's Hispanic technicians, he added, are ``awesome.''
The other speakers at the symposium concentrated on the efforts their organizations are making to establish job training programs for Hispanic technicians.
The U.S. Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration (ETA), for example, has its High-Growth Job Training Initiative not only in the auto repair field, but also in such areas as biotechnology, construction and health care. The ETA strives to create partnerships with private business to provide job training for Hispanic and other workers, according to Sue Allison of the ETA's Business Relations Group.
``Let's train workers not for the present, but for the future,'' Ms. Allison said. ``You're going to be in the workplace 40 to 45 years, so if you're going to stay employed, you have to go back periodically for retraining.''
SkillsUSA, a national organization designed to develop skills for students in career and technical education training programs, has issued Programma de Competencias Para el Trabajo, a Spanish-language version of its workplace readiness curriculum.
``This year, five of our 15 national officers are Hispanic, and eight speak three or more languages,'' said Michael Regauld, director of office training for SkillsUSA. The whole image of the technical classroom is changing rapidly. Our students are more diverse, they want to be very successful, and their thirst for knowledge is unbelievable.''
ASE, meanwhile, has worked for more than 30 years to help Hispanic certification applicants, according to Bill Kersten, ASE senior vice president-operations.
Since 1972, ASE has offered reader and translator assistance to Spanish-speaking technicians during certification testing, Mr. Kersten said. It also offers a bilingual staff, an English-Spanish glossary of automotive words and phrases, and a Spanish section on its Web site.
Its newest and most important Spanish offering, however, is its bilingual testing program introduced last year. The program is ``designed to admit linguistically isolated technicians to the certification process,'' Mr. Kersten said. There are tens of thousands of Hispanic technicians in the U.S. who need this service, he added.
Developing the test questions to be equally understandable to knowledgeable technicians from Mexico, Puerto Rico and Colombia-with their national idioms as different from each other as those of the U.S., Great Britain and Australia-was costly and time-consuming, Mr. Kersten noted.
The questions were originally translated from English into Spanish by a professional translation company, he said. The translated questions were then reviewed and edited by Spanish speakers from Mexico, Central America and South America, and a Spanish grammarian performed a final review.
Some automotive terms presented a special challenge, according to Mr. Kersten. ``For instance, `hood' does not translate readily into Spanish,'' he said. ``In that and similar cases, the English word appears.''
During the summit's question-and-answer period, attendees besides the speakers told of the efforts they are making to bring Hispanic technicians onto a level playing field with their peers.
For example, the Coordinating Committee on Automotive Repair-which offers training to automotive technicians in environmental and safety issues-has just come online with a Spanish Web site, according to Dee Rigle Torres, CCAR outreach specialist.
Also, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. is opening a new Automotive Training Center in Washington, D.C., to train as ethnically diverse a group of technicians as possible, according to Guillermo Hysaw, Toyota vice president-diversity.
The Washington center-which will train some 125 Toyota/Lexus technicians annually-is the third such in the U.S., Mr. Hysaw said. Groundbreaking ceremonies for the new center are scheduled for November, he added.