The overwhelming votes in the House and Senate to reauthorize the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act have automotive technical training experts relieved that federal funding will be available for high school and college training programs.
``Not just auto technicians but all trades have benefited greatly under the Perkins program,'' said Tony Molla, vice president of communications for the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE). ``I don't know how the White House feels about the legislation, but that's a moot point since the Senate and the House support it so strongly.''
When the Bush administration issued its Fiscal Year 2006 budget in February, it alarmed the vocational and technical education community that the budget contained no funding for the Perkins Act, which has been law since 1998. The federal education budget instead stressed funding of programs under the No Child Left Behind Act and other administration programs.
``The current program (under the Perkins Act) is not adequately preparing our students to participate in today's competitive work force,'' according to a White House policy statement issued May 4. ``The administration believes that vocational education students will be better able to compete in a changing economy if federal programs ensure accountability and incorporate rigorous academic standards.''
However, the margins of victory for the Perkins Act were veto-proof. The House approved its version of the Perkins reauthorization May 5 by a 416-9 vote. Two months earlier, on March 10, the Senate passed its Perkins bill by 99-0.
The legislation went to House-Senate conference, but the differences between the two versions are minor and technical, sources said. No bill has emerged from conference yet.
The House bill contains a provision added on the floor to earmark funds for training auto technicians to service hybrid cars, hydrogen cars and other alternative fuel vehicles. This amendment won the particular praise of the auto service community, including Bob Redding of the Automotive Service Association (ASA), who said in an ASA press release that it ``helps ensure a strong future for independent repairers.''
Since its inception, the Perkins Act has provided about $1.3 billion to vocational education programs across the U.S., according to Alisha Hyslop, assistant director of public policy for the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE) in Alexandria, Va.
Perkins Act funds go to the individual states according to a preset formula and are split among secondary and post-secondary, non-profit vocational and technical programs, Ms. Hyslop said. The states in turn divide the money among local programs based on population, she added.
There was no immediate word as to when the House and Senate would go to conference on the Perkins Act reauthorization. While the Bush administration probably won't try to veto the bill in the face of the congressional majority, it may try to tie the Perkins Act funds to specific conditions, such as academic performance and graduation rates, Ms. Hyslop said. The ACTE will continue to work with administration officials to resolve all remaining Perkins Act issues, she added.
ASE certifies secondary and post-secondary automotive technical training programs through its National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation (NATEF). According to its Web site, the foundation examines the structure and resources of training programs and evaluates them against commonly accepted standards of quality.
A training program acceptable for NATEF certification, the Web site said, might include a number of features but would certainly emphasize mechanical aptitude, computer skills, reading and reasoning skills, manual dexterity, communications skills and a thorough grounding in automotive systems and components.
There were more than 2,200 NATEF-certified education programs in the U.S. as of August 2003 and perhaps 200 more have been certified since then, according to the ASE's Mr. Molla.
``We probably certify most if not all of the higher-end programs that are really doing the job,'' he said. There probably are several hundred more secondary and post-secondary programs in the field, he added, but ``whether the students are ready to hit the ground running at an auto repair facility is up to debate.''
Mr. Molla said he worked his way through journalism school as an auto technician, then continued working as a tech for a decade after graduation when he realized he could earn more money at an auto dealership than in an entry-level reporting job.
``We have a societal bias against the trades that is really unfair and unrealistic,'' he said. ``When you are an auto technician, you have access to a pool of high-paying, portable and relatively stable jobs. You can't outsource an oil change.''
Some organizations support the Perkins Act in general, but don't-or don't yet-have any substantial ties to secondary and post-secondary auto technical programs.
``Vocational training is something we're looking to get into, but we haven't yet,'' said Kevin Rohlwing, senior vice president of training and technical services for the Tire Industry Association. TIA does have an ongoing relationship with some technical schools, he added, but mostly to provide them with tire technical information rather than actual collaborative programs.