DEARBORN, Mich. — In an automotive market marred by slumping auto sales, unpredictable fuel prices and a stalled economy, vehicle owners are depending more on skilled technicians to keep their cars running.
And, ready to answer that call in June was the next generation of automotive stars who shined at the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills National Finals in Dearborn, Mich.
In a timed, head-to-head skills showdown held June 16, the auto skills competition gave top automotive students from all 50 states the opportunity to showcase their automotive knowledge and problem-solving capabilities by resolving "real world" repair challenges within a 90-minute timeline.
For the eighth time, I served as a team judge at the competition, where I got to watch first-hand a pair of students work tediously on repairing their bugged Ford vehicle.
This year, the contest vehicle was an Escape and my team was the Rhode Island representatives Brian Medeiros and Kevin Wilkie from the Newport Area Career & Technical Center.
As a member of the aftermarket, it makes me proud to see the hard work and dedication these students display weeks after most schools are closed for the summer.
Now in its 60th year, the competition is designed to encourage teenagers to pursue careers in the automotive industry, explained Marshall Doney, AAA Automotive, vice president.
“The students competing in the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills are the future of the automotive industry,” he said. “Part of AAA’s commitment to provide motorists with solutions for all their automotive needs includes ensuring they have reliable, quality auto repair options both now and in the future.”
Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills enables many of its participants to embark on promising careers in the automotive repair industry with a record-high $10.7 million in scholarships offered this year.
Demand for well-trained technicians remains on the rise with 60 percent of the independent auto repair shops reporting sales up last year over the previous year and 76 percent saying they expect more work this year, according to an Automotive Service Association (ASA) survey.
Beyond the prizes and scholarships, this "best of the best" national competition represented the final face-off, bringing together the top 100 automotive technology students in the country who have spent countless hours of class time and extra preparation in pursuit of the national title.
Narrowed down from more than 9,700 students that started the competition back in March, the national finalists represented a variety of backgrounds and have taken several different paths in pursuit of their dreams.
For Matthew Ludwig and Justin Dwyer, high school juniors from Faribault, Minn., and winners of this year’s competition, their future in the auto industry is expected to be a bright one.
Ludwig and Dwyer recorded a “perfect car” as they correctly diagnosed and fixed all of the bugs, which included repairing the air conditioning blower, power windows and mirrors and interior and exterior lights, as well as properly diagnosing and repairing problems to the starter motor and air flow sensor all in about 42 minutes.
The pair were one of only four teams to repair all of the bugs. Most teams missed the change in blower speed that prompted a fix of the fan motor for the Escape’s heating and air conditioning system.
In addition to several scholarships, the winning duo also won the opportunity to work under the hood with the Roush Fenway Racing No. 17 DEWALT Ford Fusion team at its Concord, N.C., shop leading up to the Aug. 2 Sprint Cup Series race at Pocono Raceway, where they will serve as honorary pit crew members.
“Supporting talented young individuals in this skills competition is one reason why the Ford Motor Co. sees a solid future for this industry," said Darryl Hazel, president, Ford Customer Service Division.
“This competition provides education and scholarships that will help these students thrive in the automotive industry through a number of career options, including valuable positions within Ford’s dealer network.”
While Ford uses the contest as a way to bring talented techs into its dealerships, some of the students said they plan to work in independent shops or family run businesses as well. A few students I spoke with outside the Ford Rouge Factory Tour, part of the auto contest’s welcoming event, said they planned to one day own their own shop.
And after seeing how proudly these students showcase their diagnostic and auto repair skills, I don’t doubt them.