Wanted: auto mechanics

Solution: Some U.S. carmakers, facing a shortage of skilled mechanics, are helping high schools train students.

October 23, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

In days of old, many young boys spent the weekend toiling with Dad under the hood of the old Cadillac. But with cars becoming more like computers-on-wheels, those days may be gone.

And nobody is more nervous than the auto industry, whose representatives came to South Carroll High School in Winfield yesterday to launch a new education program there to train mechanics.

The nation's major car manufacturers are facing a shortage of 60,000 mechanics at their dealerships. Their answer is Automotive Youth Educational Systems (AYES), a Detroit nonprofit program that is sponsored by several major manufacturers and has been recruiting high schools nationwide.

South Carroll yesterday became the 116th school in the country -- and second in Maryland -- to be accredited by AYES.

For students, the program means taking specific courses in auto technology and spending time over a summer and during a semester apprenticing at a dealership. The goal, said Pat Munt, an AYES area manager, is for local dealerships to embrace students when they are young, hone their skills and -- ideally -- hire them after graduation from high school or from an auto technology program at a community college.

Years ago, Munt said, students received such nurturing elsewhere, but no longer.

"Kids started out at the service station up the street, but it's not working on cars anymore, it's selling bread, milk and lottery tickets," said Munt. "And Dad doesn't dare open the hood anymore, with all the microprocessors in there. It's not points, plugs and condensers. You can't take a $20 tool and tune up the car."

General Motors, DaimlerChrysler, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. and Volkswagen of America sponsor and have pumped several million dollars into AYES, which was founded in 1995. Already in 22 states, the program expects to graduate 1,200 students next year and 2,400 by 2001-2002. Earlier this month, AYES arrived at its only other school in Maryland, Thomas Edison High School of Technology in Montgomery County.

South Carroll had an established auto technology program, with a waiting list for its introductory course that can only accept about 25 students. But Jeff M. Leister, who has taught the courses for five years after working at a General Motors dealership, said being part of AYES assures that apprenticeships -- which his students have done in past years -- are productive.

"They're not just washing cars or doing oil changes," Leister said. "They have a curriculum -- they're doing brake jobs and wheel alignments."

Dave Sparrow, service manager at Winn Kelly Chevrolet in Clarkesville, said young mechanics recruited through the school programs have worked out very well.

"We hired a student we had last year," he said. "For one thing, if there are any deficiencies, such as poor work habits, the school is checking and takes care of it immediately."

Bob Slovey, a regional manager for General Motors, said the AYES program helps students see career possibilities too.

"They may not want to be a mechanic all their lives, but this can lead them from being a technician into management, service or parts."

"Graduates can earn $40,000 to $60,000 right out of high school, if they are capable and want to work hard," noted Sparrow. "This is an honorable profession."

Students have to make a commitment of $300 to participate in the program, and the dealers that hire them have to put up $600. The money goes toward a tool kit -- worth $2,700 -- which the students receive when they begin AYES.

Leister added that while he and his students repair as many as 250 cars per semester at the school's garage, nothing there can mimic actually dealing with customers.

"There is nothing like working for `Mary Smith' -- she's the 80-year-old woman who comes with her car and a complaint," he said. "They need to see that in real life."

For South Carroll senior Greg Hymiller, 17, of Sykesville, the AYES program is a blessing.

Wearing a snappy red blazer, the uniform for those enrolled in the school's Vocational Industrial Club of America, Hymiller said he has always enjoyed working with his hands and fixing his own four-wheeler and motorcycle to save money.

"Now, my friends are coming to me to help them fix their cars and it makes me feel good to be able to help them out."

Hymiller hopes to land a job with Cox Ford in Hampstead.

"I can't wait to go on my interview," he said.

What has made life for dealerships even harder recently is that, despite the shortage of mechanics, many applicants seeking jobs do not have the background in electronics, math and problem-solving that repairing cars requires today. David T. Booz, South Carroll's principal, said he heard plenty of such complaints from local dealerships in years past.

That began to change about five years ago, Booz said, when South Carroll made its auto technology classes more rigorous.

The school's program is now certified by the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation. Such certification is a prerequisite for becoming part of AYES.

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