That there is an ongoing, serious shortage of qualified automotive repair technicians in the U.S. is axiomatic in the auto repair industry. That the number of secondary and post-secondary schools that offer auto technical training courses and majors is declining is less well-known but easily inferred.
That doesn't mean, however, that auto makers, auto aftermarket associations and at least some education officials aren't moving heaven and earth to change the situation. There are myriad scholarships, apprenticeship programs and educational partnerships available for aspiring auto technicians, experts point out-if only students know about them and have the will to pursue them.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the auto repair market will demand 35,000 new technicians every year through 2010. But Karpeople.com, a California-based automotive employment agency, says on its Web site that there is a 30-percent shortage of auto technicians nationwide.
On the other hand, the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA) states that the industry employs about 837,000 auto service technicians in this country. The AAIA also has noted that there is an estimated shortage of 60,000 techs for an industry that rings up $250 billion in annual aftermarket sales-about two-thirds of that from vehicle service and repair.
At first glance, there seems no reason for this shortfall. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that master technicians can expect to earn between $70,000 and $100,000 annually, sometimes more.
Furthermore, auto repair is one of the very few careers that is recession-proof, noted Laurence Eiden, transportation consultant for the Connecticut State Department of Education Technical High School System.
``All autos need to be repaired, and they need to be repaired locally,'' Mr. Eiden told Tire Business. ``You won't ship your car to Singapore or Brazil for repairs.''
But James A. Dunst, national manager for the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills contest, has noticed a fall-off in the number of schools that offer serious training for young auto technicians. The annual contest, usually held in Washington, offers prizes to high school automotive-track students from across the country who take a written exam, then work against the clock to troubleshoot and fix vehicles set up with identical problems.
``There are roughly 6,000 schools on our mailing list now,'' Mr. Dunst said. ``There are always some duplications, so the actual number is probably 5,500, ballpark. But in 1990, there were more than 7,000.''
Mr. Dunst estimates that for every 10 technicians who will retire within the next 15 years, only two or three new technicians are entering the profession. Half the technicians today are over 45, he said, and the same holds true for high school auto shop instructors.
``A lot of times, I've heard from schools that the teacher retired, so they had to close the program,'' he said. ``I had an interest in automotive when I was young, and it was those classes that got me enthused and made me go on to enter the field. If you don't have those technicians available, a lot fewer kids are going to be motivated to enter the profession.''
There are other reasons for high school auto training programs closing, according to Mr. Dunst. One is that with computer-based training now a must, some schools balk at paying for the necessary equipment. Another is liability-working on cars puts students at greater risk than, say, studying English or trigonometry.
The growing complexity of cars has changed both the way auto technology is taught and the amount of knowledge you can expect students to have when first coming into the class, according to Jerry Peterson, auto technology instructor at Flowing Wells High School in Tucson, Ariz.
``Today's students don't have the fundamental background they had 10 or 20 years ago,'' said Mr. Peterson, a 26-year veteran of teaching auto skills. ``Cars are too complicated nowadays for their fathers to work on them, which was how students used to learn the fundamentals.''
Getting students motivated
According to Mr. Dunst, state departments of education need to place a greater focus on training young people for careers in auto repair. Commitment to that goal, however, varies widely from state to state. Mr. Dunst sees that firsthand in how different states react to the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills contest, arguably the most widely publicized program in the U.S. to promote student auto skills.
``In New York, the governor made a proclamation that schools couldn't be involved in extra programs,'' he said. That means that the New York Department of Education and its employees can no longer get involved in the Auto Skills contest, he added. Individual schools still may, but not having Department of Education help in administering the written test or sending students to the national contest will hamper student involvement there enormously, he said.
On the other hand, the Virginia Department of Education is ``just wonderful'' to work with, Mr. Dunst said. ``It's one of the best states to work with. The Department of Education there does more for us than almost any other state.''
Whatever states are doing or not doing to motivate students to enter the auto repair field, however, the private sector has been striving for years in this area, particularly through various partnerships and organizations to offer scholarships, apprenticeships and training program certification.
Among certification organizations, none has the cachet or the widespread influence of the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation (NATEF).
Founded in 1983 with input from both the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association and the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE), NATEF exists to evaluate secondary and post-secondary technician training programs against ASE standards.
Technician training programs can achieve ASE certification only through the recommendation of NATEF, which maintains precise national standards to ensure that training programs meet ASE quality levels. Among other things, NATEF requires schools to possess adequate equipment for students to meet up-to-date technical and computer requirements and instructors to attend at least 20 hours annually of ASE-certified auto training programs.
At least in theory, any student who graduates from an ASE/NATEF-accredited program and successfully completes NATEF End-of-Program tests can be hired immediately at any auto dealership or auto repair shop in the U.S.
As of May 30, there were 2,086 ASE/NATEF-certified schools and colleges in all 50 states, according to Executive Director Mary Hutchinson. About 148 of those schools achieved certification in the previous year, she said.
``There probably are some who have let their certifications lapse,'' Ms. Hutchinson said. ``NATEF requires recertification every five years, and usually with lapsed certifications it's a matter of not following through with recertification.''
But other factors, such as staff changes in which all ASE-certified instructors move on, also can occur, she said.
ASE/NATEF certification is one of the crucial prerequisites to schools' membership in Automotive Youth Educational Systems (AYES). It is a partnership involving the National Automobile Dealers Association, 14 auto makers and their participating dealers and various high schools and technical schools designed to encourage students to enter the fields of auto mechanical and body repair.
AYES was founded in 1995 as General Motors Youth Educational Systems and expanded two years later to become AYES. ``It's a great story,'' said Larry Cummings, AYES president and CEO. ``Back in 1995, Jack Smith came home from GM Europe to head GM. There was a huge rollout for the new CEO, with Smith traveling to GM dealerships all across the country.
``Smith came up through the field, and when he looked at what was happening at the dealerships and with the company's new vehicles, he said, `We won't be able to service our product in the field! It's too complicated!'''
That was in February 1995, Mr. Cummings said, and that was the impetus for AYES.
Under the AYES program, qualified students have summer internships at participating dealerships, under the guidance of experienced technicians who serve as ``mentors.'' They are then primed to go on to the manufacturer-supported, college level programs sponsored by GM, Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler A.G., Toyota Motor Sales USA and Honda Motor Co., as well as the certificate programs offered by other auto manufacturers.
According to the AYES Web site, there are now more than 410 schools in 45 states participating in the AYES program, as well as some 5,100 participating dealerships. Last November, the U.S. Department of Labor gave AYES a $2.2 million grant to develop a Web-based program to serve dealers and students not affiliated with an AYES school.