He also sees a skills gap among high school graduates who have little or no experience working with their hands and may not know basic mechanical concepts. Some haven't ever changed a lightbulb.
And then there's the lingering perception, he says, that auto repair is low-skill, low-pay work, and a place to send struggling students.
"We have this stigma that automotive might be considered a dumping ground for students who didn't do well at something else," Mr. Santamaria said. "I see that a lot. I would like to invite counselors out and show them how complicated [automotive] systems are."
Jonathan Collegio, senior vice president of public affairs for the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA), says school counselors may be in the dark about what service techs do, and may not know that some earn more than $100,000 a year, because the industry has done little to educate them.
"Last year, I went to the American School Counselor Association conference in Denver, and virtually every industry that is facing some kind of shortage was exhibiting there and talking about the benefits of the jobs in their industry," Collegio recalls. "Auto would not have even been represented had not Ford decided to be there for the first time."
This year, NADA is launching an initiative to promote dealership careers, with particular emphasis on service technicians.
Mr. Santamaria notes that dealerships often donate vehicles, parts, tools and repair equipment to local schools and colleges. He says they can provide another valuable service by serving on school advisory boards.
Truman and Sinclair colleges have advisory boards made up of owners and managers of dealerships, independent shops and franchised repair businesses. They provide two-way communication about what their shops need and what auto tech programs should be doing.
"They're the best source of assessment of our students," Mr. Santamaria says of Truman's advisory board. "If they hire one of our students, in six months I can talk to that service manager and ask, 'What is our program doing well and in what areas does it need improvement?' That will help us in the end have better students come out of the program."
Managers from Smith South Plains Ford-Lincoln in Levelland, Texas, serve on several such advisory boards. Those relationships bring apprentices into the dealership's service department who can grow into full-time techs, says dealer principal Annette Sykora.
"A tech we hired about three years ago was just coming out of high school and going into a community college program," said Ms. Sykora, a former NADA chairman and current NADA Foundation chairman. "He wasn't sure if he just wanted to do this while he was going to school or if he wanted to become a technician.
"He completed the community college program and decided that was the career he wanted and to stay on permanently with us," she says. "He's very sharp, and I would say in the next five to 10 years he will be one of my lead techs."
More of that kind of proactive approach would help dealerships alleviate shortages they face in hiring technicians, says Trish Serratore, senior vice president of the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) and president of ASE's education foundation. ASE has accredited 2,300 education programs, 1,100 at high schools and the rest at postsecondary institutions.
"It is very expensive to run an automotive service technology program, so unless the industry supports schools that have a program, it could close," Ms. Serratore said.
"My very simple statement to employers who say they need technicians is, get involved with your local school, whether that is a high school or a community college, because they're right there."