From Daily News
LOS ANGELES — Motorists, already facing soaring gas prices, can expect higher repair costs in the future because of a lack of qualified mechanics.
Even as today’s cars and trucks become more technologically advanced, there are fewer students who can read well enough to understand manuals that explain how to repair them, mechanics and automotive instructors say.
“Twenty years ago, if you had common sense and understood basic electricity and how a carburetor works, you could be a mechanic,” said Carlos Palacios, service manager for Toyota Santa Monica. “But in today’s world, you have to be technology-oriented.”
Community college automotive instructors say some students who aspire to be mechanics are dropping out because they can’t handle the reading and math load.
Other students squeeze by and settle for a basic mechanic’s certificate rather than completing their associate of arts degree in the field, which could put them on a path to earn up to $100,000 a year as a mechanic.
Many in the auto repair industry say that basic supply-and-demand economics dictate that the growing shortage of qualified, high-end mechanics means they’ll be able to charge a lot more for their services down the road.
“I don’t know that the cost of an oil change is going to go up, but certainly the cost of electronic diagnosis and repair of computer-controlled systems is going to,” said Terry LaCroix, automotive technology professor at MiraCosta College in Oceanside and executive treasurer of the California Automotive Teachers Association. “Some of these cars have up to 20 computers on board, and it’s going to cost more for high-end repairs.”
Gary Sornborger, a part-time instructor at Pierce College and owner of Gary’s Automotive Repair in Northridge, said it’s already getting tougher to find high-end mechanics for his business.
“We have to be darn near rocket scientists for some of these cars,” Sornborger said.
Sornborger’s colleague at Pierce College, auto technology instructor Tom Rosedahl, said he’s seeing a growing number of high school dropouts who can’t read well enough to understand the service manuals.
About 25 percent of the 250 students in Pierce’s program are high school dropouts with poor reading and study skills, Rosedahl estimates. Many dropouts come to community college because the only admission requirement is that they be 18 or older.
While these students will be able to move on to $12-an-hour jobs at oil-and-lube garages, they will not be able to feed the growing demand for high-end mechanics.
Of particular concern is creating a big enough pool of mechanics to work on popular electric hybrid vehicles, which cut down on fossil fuel emissions and consumption.
Santa Monica Toyota says it sells the most electric hybrid Toyota Prius cars in Los Angeles. Palacios, the dealer’s service manager, said the job requirements to repair a hybrid are closer to an engineer than an auto mechanic.
“If you don’t know how to work on a car like that, you can die — there’s 300 volts going through there.”
Palacios advises students that if they bear down and finish their AA degrees, they could one day land a job that pays between $75,000 and $100,000 fixing today’s high-tech cars.
“In future years, it’s going to require some kind of college education to be able to work on some of these cars,” he said. “Basic maintenance any mechanic can do, but when you get into the diagnostic aspect of the business, it’s going to take a very intelligent person.”
In the nine-campus Los Angeles Community College District, only Pierce College, Los Angeles Trade-Tech College and East Los Angeles College offer automotive technology programs.
Adrian Banuelos, chairman of the automotive technology department at East Los Angeles College, is also pushing his students to complete their AA.
“Most are going for the certificate because they just want to get a job,” said Banuelos, who was a Mercedes-Benz technician for 17 years. “Often, once they get into the real world, they understand what the instructors have been saying about continuing education, and they come back.”
Too many high schools have done away with auto technology programs that in the past kept potential dropouts motivated to stay in school and gave them an introduction to the trade, he said.
Hands-on classes such as electronics or metalworking often can show less-academically inclined students that there’s a practical application to abstract math and English concepts, Banuelos said.
Nick Swain, 25, of Reseda, is a Pierce College student who graduated high school before attending community college. He’s now training to be a smog technician, with the potential of earning $1,000 a week when he graduates.
“If you can’t even read at a high school level, you’re going to have a hard time,” Swain said. “If you’re working on foreign cars, the manuals have been translated from the foreign language and sometimes the translation is not right.”
Copyright 2004 Daily News, Los Angeles. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.
Click here to view the rest of today’s headlines.