WASHINGTON (Aug. 15, 2005) — 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.
Scholarships and competitions
There are an numerous scholarships available to aspiring auto technicians, many of them sponsored by aftermarket companies and associations.
A long list of aftermarket associations—including the Tire Industry Association (TIA), the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA), the Motor & Equipment Market Association and the AAIA—supports and promotes the Global Automotive Aftermarket Symposium (GAAS) Scholarship Program.
Founded in 1996, the GAAS Scholarship Program has given out more than 900 $1,000 scholarships to auto technology students and will reach the 1,000 mark in 2005, according to Pete Kornafel, vice chairman of CARQUEST Corp. and chairman of the GAAS scholarship committee.
In 2004, the program awarded 145 scholarships out of more than 500 qualified applicants, according to Mr. Kornafel. There are 20 members on the scholarship committee, he said—one from each of the eight supporting associations and 12 at-large, rotating members.
Qualified applicants have graduated from high school two years or less before applying and are enrolled in any accredited college or university or NATEF-certified vocational school, Mr. Kornafel said. “The committee gives strongest weight to applicants who want to become technicians and to sons and daughters of aftermarket industry families,” he added.
In 2004, the committee did a survey of former scholarship recipients. “Seventy-five percent are working in the aftermarket, including technicians at independent shops and new-car dealers, and people working for parts suppliers or manufacturers,” Mr. Kornafel said. “The vast majority said the GAAS Scholarship helped a lot with their education.”
Some aftermarket associations, both on the state and national levels, also sponsor their own scholarship programs. Since 1984, for example, SEMA has awarded more than $650,000 to deserving students through its SEMA Memorial Scholarship Fund (SMSF), according to the Diamond Bar, Calif.-based trade group's Web site. In 2005 alone, the SMSF handed out $120,000 to 80 auto technical students in colleges and technical schools across the U.S.
Many scholarship programs take the form of student competitions. The Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills contest famously offers winning students a wide choice of scholarships from various colleges and technical institutions, as well as general education scholarship money from the sponsoring entities, Ford Motor Co. and the American Automobile Association (AAA).
SkillsUSA, a national organization designed to promote excellence in vocational training in a wide range of fields, sponsors a national competition every year in Kansas City in areas including auto service technology, collision repair technology and diesel equipment technology. An active SkillsUSA chapter is another prerequisite for schools that seek to participate in the AYES program.
There's also the National Automotive Technology Competition, founded in 1990 by the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association. Sponsored by ASE, AYES, 19 auto makers, Snap-on Tools Co. and a long list of technical institutions, this competition offers participating students more than $3 million in prizes and scholarships every year, including two Chevrolet Cobalts to the two-person winning team.
Though TIA sponsors the GAAS Scholarship Program and has a long history of professional training programs, it hasn't ventured into AYES-type partnerships with schools and colleges to promote tire and auto technical training for young people, according to Kevin Rohlwing, TIA senior vice president of education and technical services. But that could change in the near future, he said.
TIA already has had some discussions with Massachusetts Bay Community College in Boston and with Denver Automotive & Diesel College, a part of Lincoln Technical Institute, about partnering to offer tire technical classes there, according to Mr. Rohlwing. It also is talking to the Community College of Baltimore County in Maryland toward the same goal.
Two state associations, the Virginia Automotive Association and the New England Tire & Service Association, are working with the national organization toward establishing some training programs, Mr. Rohlwing said.
“We're also negotiating with other state associations to put together partnerships with them,” he said. “The goal is that each region would have its own training centers, so people wouldn't have to travel all the way to us. If we could have two or three schools in each geographic region, that would do it.”
The nationwide shortage of technicians means that more and more of the training burden will fall on the industry itself, and increasingly this will mean partnerships with technical schools, according to Mr. Rohlwing.
“Even the original equipment manufacturers don't have their own training centers any more,” he said. “I don't know if all of them are closed, but most of them are, and they're going instead to the Massachusetts Bay Community Colleges and the Lincoln Technical Institutes.
“From now on, you're going to have to start at the beginning with a lot of new kids,” Mr. Rohlwing added. “And if you want to be an automotive technician, you're going to have to be in school for more or less the rest of your life.”