HONOLULUAuto dealer Mark Benson wants to give poor kids a shot at a lucrative career while helping to solve the national shortage of automotive service technicians.
Last year, Mr. Benson teamed with the Aloha Council of the Boy Scouts of America in Hawaii to start a program at his dealership to introduce high school students to careers as service techs. He wants to take it nationwide.
Mr. Benson, president of Honolulu Ford in Hawaii, cites estimates of a need for 100,000 technicians in the U.S., adding: The high schools, for the most part, no longer have vocational tech training classes. So we have to create our own farm system, just like in baseball.
The programHonolulu Ford Explorer Postrecruits local high school students ages 17 and 18. It's named after the Boy Scouts' worksite-based Explorer Post learning program for those generally ages 15-20. (The Boy Scouts' program for older members of that age group formerly was known as Explorers, but now is called Venturing.)
The students spend two evenings a month for nearly a year in Mr. Benson's car dealership learning what it takes to be a service technician.
Mr. Benson, an Eagle Scout, said he has been meeting with the Boy Scouts' leadership to discuss a way to roll out a similar program at other dealerships nationwide.
He chose to team with the Boy Scouts because of the success of their fire and police cadet programs.
The first group of 14 participants started the program in August 2014 and finished last September. One student in that group has committed to attend the Ford Asset Program to become a certified technician. In October, the second program began with 11 students.
Mr. Benson pitched his idea to administrators at three local high schools in early 2014. Fliers distributed in the schools attracted about 60 school leaders, parents and students to an open house at his dealership to learn more.
There, he shared figures from the National Automobile Dealers Association's Dealership Workforce Study, showing that the average service tech's compensation in 2014 was $59,181, up 4.8 percent from 2013.
For a long time, high schools would tell kids they weren't fit to go to college, so 'Go be a grease monkey,' Mr. Benson said. Today the bulk of the work is done with computers. We need kids with a great work ethic and a great mind.
In some ways, Mr. Benson was his own inspiration for the program. In 1980, he was a senior in high school in Illinois when he was told to not pursue college.
I am that guy, he said. My high school guidance counselor would not help me fill out a college application because he said I wasn't college material.
Mr. Benson, the son of a small-town minister, was accepted into Iowa State University. He graduated in 1984 with a bachelor's degree in agricultural economics, hoping to sell John Deere equipment. Instead, he landed in the auto industry.
Now, he uses his story as an example of how an automotive career can offer a world of opportunities to the students. Most of them are from inner-city public schools and at the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder, he said.
He makes sure they knowYou're not isolated to only working in one town your whole life.
If you're a factory-trained Ford technician and want to move to Montana, there are jobs available to you immediately.
Mr. Benson is still developing a formal curriculum, but the students earn high school credit for completing his program.
The students meet from 5:30 until 7 or 7:30 every other Monday evening. They start in the dealership's conference room, where Mr. Benson provides pizza or tacos.
The students, wearing technicians' uniforms, eat while listening to him and the service techs discuss, say, tires and wheels. Then they don their safety glasses and head for the shop. They work on two or three of Mr. Benson's used cars as a factory-trained technician supervises their work.
We take the brake pads off, with the technicians showing them how to do it. Then we have them put new brake pads on, Mr. Benson said. The kids don't want to leave.
You get them underneath a car and they get their videophones out and they want to get dirty and embrace it.
Later in the program, they use a laptop computer to do a vehicle diagnosis.
We want to show them that repairing the cars isn't about a hammer and tools anymore. It involves computers, which they're comfortable with, Mr. Benson said.
The dealership has to be creative to find service techs because being on an island, even Oahu, limits the pool of candidates.
It's very, very difficult to bring someone over from the mainland, Mr. Benson said. It's the high cost of living, terrible traffic, our public schools are horrible and the private schools start at $20,000 a year per child.
He once helped pay to move a service technician and his family from the Midwest to Hawaii. That tech quit and returned home within three months.
Mr. Benson has 22 full-time service techs and wants to hire at least 10 more. He has hired seven students enrolled in the Ford Asset Program at the local community college even though they will not graduate as certified technicians for two more years.
He extended his hours to 8 p.m., from 5 p.m. previously, four nights a week so those seven could shadow experienced techs. The seven students change oil now and will add more assignments as their skills increase.
He said he hopes others in the Explorer Post program might see service tech as a fallback career. Either way, he said he believes the $1,500 he spends a year to run the program will pay off.
It's not about the short term. It's got to be about the long term, Mr. Benson said. They're good kids who just want to have a direction.
This story appeared in Automotive News, a sister publication of Tire Business.