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The State of Industry Education

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Mike Romano calls it a “vacuum,” a 30-year vacuum that has worked to suck talent out of the auto repair industry.

“For years now, high school seniors ready to graduate have been pushed toward four-year degrees,” says Romano, president of the Universal Technical Institute (UTI) Avondale, Ariz., campus. “As a result, we have less and less people entering [automotive repair]. It becomes a bidding war for qualified, entry-level technicians, and a lot of shops are losing.”

And it’s only getting worse.

U.S. Department of Labor statistics show that consumer demand for automotive repair is on a steady rise, due to a better economy, recent increases in auto sales and a young demographic—Generation Y—soon to become America’s largest car-buying group. The Department of Labor predicts a 17 percent increase in technician job growth between 2010 and 2020.

Over that same time period, the soon-to-be-retiring Baby Boomer generation will leave additional voids in industry employment. As it stands, there won’t be enough qualified workers to fill those gaps.

“More experienced, qualified technicians will be retiring very soon and for the next 10–20 years or so,” says Trish Serratore, president of the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation (NATEF) and the Automotive Youth Educational System (AYES), both part of the newly formed ASE Industry Education Alliance. “This is a real problem, something that affects everyone in the industry.”

Whether it be on a national or local level, industry educators like Romano and Serratore are working to overhaul auto repair’s education system, and their message to shops is clear: Get onboard, or you’ll be the one left without a sufficient staff.

“We’re creating the programs, we’re building a system to train and educate the next generation of automotive technicians,” Serratore says, “but it won’t work without support. … Employers need to step up and help.”

The possible alternative? Mass attrition for the industry.

‘A Bidding War’

Private jets—Romano has seen it. The race for dealerships, national chains and independent shops to recruit the best soon-to-be technicians coming out of school is real one, and is increasingly more and more competitive.

“It’s a bidding war today,” Romano says. “As vehicles become more complicated, dealers are well aware of the skill level they need out of new techs, and they’ll do what they need to to get them.

“It’s common nowadays for them to offer $5,000 signing bonuses and tool bonuses as recruiting tools. I’ve even seen one dealer fly to pick up a possible tech in a private jet, fly them back to the dealership for a tour and introduction, and then fly them back in the jet. That’s not common, but how’s that for an experience?”

UTI had an 85 percent placement rate among its graduates—and that takes into account those who choose not to enter the industry. Currently, 170,000 UTI grads are working in the industry. Romano, a former tech and shop owner, is one of them.

It’s no secret that this is a great time to be graduating from an automotive program; the demand for technicians far exceeds the supply.

“But that’s bad for our industry,” Romano says. “That supply needs to increase substantially.”

As the west region manager of the ASE Education Alliance, Marvin Linville works with high school programs to get them accredited through the NATEF program. The trends at the secondary education level are alarming, he says.

“You take a look at California, and these programs are losing funding left and right,” he says. “Schools are scrambling to keep them alive, and the general perception is that they’re not worth the funding.”

It’s a real and scary situation, says Brian Wheeler, head of the automotive program at Alhambra High School in Martinez, Calif. Too often, there’s a disconnect between the industry and the administrators at schools that leads to—or perpetuates—the negative stereotypes of the repair industry.

Wheeler likens that relationship between school administrators and the industry as going to Paris and only speaking English.

HANDS-ON IMPROVEMENT: Romano encourages shop owners to make a connection with their local schools. Photo by Carl Schultz

“You can be understood but not by everyone and often with much resentment and you won’t have a good experience,” Wheeler says. “But if you speak a little of their language and try to communicate, you can have a marvelous magical adventure.”

The industry needs to educate administrators about the realities and benefits of repair careers.

And it needs to get kids engaged. There are so many alternatives today, Linville says, and there is a genuine lack of interest in the automotive field.

“I just think there isn’t that background of working on cars in the driveway or with their parents that there was 30 years ago,” he says. “People still love cars, but it’s more difficult to get them engaged in that way.”

A Combined Effort

All of these problems, all of these various issues are exactly what ASE and its Education Alliance are trying to address through its various programs, Serratore says.

The Alliance launched in 2013 and combines the efforts of ASE, NATEF, AYES, the North American Council of Automotive Teachers (NACAT), and the Automotive Training Managers Council (ATMC) to help build a genuine link through the industry education process; it helps provide a pathway from student to school to career to continued education and career advancement, Serratore says.

“We’re all well aware that there could be a shortage [of technicians],” Serratore says. “The bigger thing is that there could be an extreme shortage of good, qualified technicians. And of the ones that are there, there’s been a disconnect between them and finding work in shops.”

The solution to improving the educational system is three-fold, Serratore says.

NATEF has recently altered its accreditation requirements among secondary institutions to better adhere with the needs of shops today. More than 70 percent of all the work that goes through shops is related to maintenance and light repair, Linville says, and that’s the new primary focus of secondary automotive programs. (They used to have a curriculum focused on braking, heat and electrical systems.)

“We looked at what the minimum requirement should be to be an entry-level technician at a shop, and that’s what the programs are now accredited to educate based on,” Serratore says.

AYES works to build connections between students and employers through “shadow” and internship programs. AYES identifies and recruits qualified students (based on GPA, aptitude, attitude, etc.) and sets them on a path to get involved directly with shops, learning more about the industry, gaining experience, and developing connections with employers.

And, finally, there’s ASE’s relatively new Student Certification Test Series, which provides student-level tests in the eight traditional ASE certification categories. When passed, students gain a two-year temporary certification that qualifies them as an entry-level tech.

“The idea, with the temporary certification, is that they continue their education and work in a shop while earning their next, professional-level certifications,” Serratore says. “It’s a new way of showing employers they are ready to work and qualified to work.”

Tech colleges are also trying to enhance their offerings to students. UTI, for instance, has connections with 30 OEMs to provide specific tooling, equipment and process training.

“We want to make them as employable as possible, and making sure they’re prepared to work on the vehicles they’ll see,” Romano says.

Name Calling

Without a doubt, the automotive repair industry is a different field today.

“This is, more and more, becoming a high-tech industry,” says Linville, who spent his early career as a technician before owning a shop with his brothers. He also taught for 20 years. “Just the simple fact that we don’t have mechanics anymore. It’s automotive technicians. The names have changed to reflect that change.”

Yet, Linville says, industry stereotypes still remain among consumers—the same consumers that aren’t encouraging their sons and daughters to enter the field, and the same consumers voting against funding to automotive education programs.

Bottom line: The industry has to change its image if it is going to generate the next generation of technicians.

“ASE is doing a number of things to better promote who we are [as an industry] today, but it’s going to come down to each of us, each day, changing people’s minds,” Serratore says.

With the advent of new vehicle technology and sophisticated in-car systems, the industry is changing for the better, Romano says. But, for the average shop to succeed long-term, they will need qualified technicians to perform repairs.

The vacuum, Romano says, can’t be ignored.

“It truly does depress me at times because I’ve experienced success in this industry. I love this industry,” he says. “It’s such an exciting industry with so much opportunity, but people don’t realize what’s out there for them. We have to show them.” 

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