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Technology Outpaces Would-be Technicians

Help Wanted: Automotive technician. Starting salary: $30,000. Benefits include medical insurance, plus two weeks paid vacation and two long weekends off — that’s Thursday through Sunday — a year. How difficult is it to fill a job like that in Michigan’s lackluster economy? Plenty, according to Stan Shephard, owner of Shephard’s Hi Tech Automotive in Detroit. Shephard posted his help-wanted sign 18 months ago, and today the position remains unfilled. He’s had only 15 applicants for the job.

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From Detroit Free Press

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DETROIT — Help Wanted: Automotive technician. Starting salary: $30,000. Benefits include medical insurance, plus two weeks paid vacation and two long weekends off — that’s Thursday through Sunday — a year.

How difficult is it to fill a job like that in Michigan’s lackluster economy?

Plenty, according to Stan Shephard, owner of Shephard’s Hi Tech Automotive in Detroit. Shephard posted his help-wanted sign 18 months ago, and today the position remains unfilled. He’s had only 15 applicants for the job.

“Lots of guys come in here and want to be a mechanic, but they don’t have the ability to come in and troubleshoot,” said Shephard, who employs three other technicians. “These guys can pull engines, but they can’t hook up a scanner and do the high-tech part. We need that. They don’t realize that the business has changed.”

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Technological advances in the car industry have outpaced the pool of qualified technicians.

As a result, independent garage owners and automobile dealers in Detroit and across the country are hard-pressed to fill positions.

The shortage isn’t expected to wane anytime soon. A majority of auto dealers say they need to hire at least one new technician in the next six months. The average number of new technicians needed is 2.1 per dealer, according to a study conducted for Universal Technical Institute, a trainer of service technicians.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has set the shortage at 35,000 annually through 2010, Automotive Retailing Today reports.

“The knowledge needed to fix a car today is nothing like it was 10 years ago,” said Terry Burns, executive vice president of the Michigan Automobile Dealers Association . “The level of study and the degree of study has changed. Technicians have become very difficult to find.”

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Tapping teens, vets

But industry associations like the Michigan Automobile Dealers, as well as car manufacturers and independent business owners, are retooling recruitment efforts, working with local high schools and colleges to upgrade training and vocational programs and tapping skilled military veterans.

“The bottom line is there’s a national shortage of technicians, and we’re certainly a part of it,” said Ken Schewe, director of educational programs for the Detroit Auto Dealers Association. “A lot of the problem is perception about the job. A lot of parents and students still look at it as a dirty job, a job with no future. That’s just not the case. It’s a very high-tech job right now.”

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It’s also a well-paid job. The typical salary for an automotive technician ranges from about $30,000 to $50,000 a year. In larger metropolitan areas, some make as much as $100,000, industry officials say.

But the days of walking into the neighborhood gas station and learning the ropes to become a mechanic are gone. Today, technicians must be able to read and write and possess math, science and problem-solving skills.

“Today a car is nothing short of a physics lab,” Schewe said.

One of the industry’s biggest recruitment tools is Automotive Youth Educational Systems (AYES), a partnership among carmakers, dealers and schools. Under the program, students begin training during their junior year of high school, shadow experienced mechanics and take part in paid summer internships. After graduation, they can begin work or continue with advanced training in college.

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So far, about 370 schools in 45 states participate, said Larry Cummings, president and CEO of AYES. About 2,500 interns are expected to train at dealerships across the country this summer.

“There’s a lot of people retiring in this industry right now,” Cummings said. “There’s a need for young, aggressive minds that understand technology to become productive in dealerships and independent garages. This is a vocational initiative that does it right.”

Michael Savoie, owner of Savoie Chevrolet in Troy, Mich., is among the dealerships working with AYES and other programs.

“It’s going well,” Savoie said. “We try to have four in training all the time. Some wash out, but we’ve been successful. We’ve been able to replace some of our older technicians at retirement with younger technicians. Now, we have something to show parents that a career as an automotive technician can be very good. You can have a career that will last as long as you live.

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Concerned about the lack of qualified employees, Ken Navarre, owner of the Michigan Motor Exchange, began his own informal training program several years ago, with prospective technicians working and learning from experienced ones.

Additionally, Navarre has been working with the Michigan Automotive Academy in Romulus, Mich., a charter high school that teaches students automotive, machine and electronic skills along with academics.

It’s an initiative he believes works, training future technicians, said Navarre, who is president of the charter school’s board.

“There is more sophisticated computer technology in a car today than there was on the Apollo 11 spaceship,” Navarre said. “Everything in a car takes mechanical aptitude along with computer logic. Everyone talks about the problem but not everyone steps up to the plate” on the trained-labor shortage.

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Copyright 2004 Detroit Free Press. All Rights Reserved.

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