Fixing the mechanic shortage

Repair: South Carroll High is participating in a national program that lets students work in car dealerships to learn aspects of the mechanics' trade.

June 21, 2000|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

The 1999 Chevy Camaro SS, a screaming hot red number with a contrasting black top, has whistle-clean mag wheels and a dark leather interior that speaks of luxury. It also has bad brakes and is due for an oil change.

Mike Adams' job is to get this expensive machine in tiptop shape. Adams leaned over the car, holding a high-tech scanning tool. His eyes lighted up at the device, and he explained that the diagnostic tool can "read" the car's computer to determine if anything is out of whack.

Adams is a 17-year-old South Carroll High School student. He is also a 40-hour-a-week summer employee at a Fox Chevrolet dealership in Baltimore County.

This lanky teen-ager is part of a team with adult mechanics who will be at his side answering questions and providing guidance and supervision.

Across the nation, automobile dealerships face a shortage of mechanics, industry experts say.

"This is based on a survey of industry needs and a survey of positions vacant," said David Quisenberry, who works for a national program aiming to stem that tide. He said 60,000 jobs need to be filled.

"Right now, I won't say it is critical, but it is at the shortage stage," he said. "It will continue to get shorter as the increase in demand rises. We are selling 17 million cars a year in this country."

For dealerships, fewer mechanics means it may take longer to get a car, truck or sport utility vehicle fixed. For consumers, it may mean their vehicles are out of commission for a longer period than they are used to.

In the not-too-distant past, kids might have learned to fix cars standing beside their fathers. But times have changed.

"Everything in a car is electrical now," said Jeff Leister, an auto technician teacher at South Carroll.

For this nation to have enough qualified mechanics in the near future and beyond for increasingly computerized cars, young people have to be enticed to enter the business, said Quisenberry.

He is area manager for a program, Automotive Youth Educational Systems, that matches schools with local automobile dealers willing to train teen-agers. AYES began five years ago in schools across the country. "We started in seven pilot schools," Quisenberry said. "Now we are in 165."

In Maryland, the AYES program began in October and is in three schools - South Carroll, Parkside High School in Wicomico County and Thomas Edison High School of Technology in Montgomery County.

"The purpose is to encourage bright students with good technical skills to pursue careers in the automotive industry in everything from service technician to engineering," Quisenberry said.

South Carroll High School has 19 students working in the industry this summer, the largest number any AYES school has had in its first year. The majority of those in the AYES program plan to attend a community college to continue their education.

The school has also won an award for Outstanding Career Technology Program in the state.

As part of the AYES program, the students went on interviews at dealerships like any prospective employee.

"They had to apply for the job," said Leister, their teacher at South Carroll. The students cannot be slackers during the school year and expect to get the summer internships, which pay $7 an hour.

"They have to have a 2.5 grade point average and 94 percent attendance," Leister said.

His students are working at 15 area dealerships, including Koons Toyota in Westminster, Saturn of Owings Mills, Fox Mitsubishi in Woodlawn and Hanover Toyota in Pennsylvania.

The idea of having high school students work in his shop beside full-time employees didn't thrill David Laird, the service director at Fox Chevrolet in Woodlawn.

"At the beginning, there was apprehension," Laird said. That apprehension gave way to enthusiasm.

"Once we went to South Carroll [High], we became more interested," he explained. "Once we met the students, we became very interested."

This is good news for Leister, who is grateful the companies are willing to help the students.

For the students, working at the dealerships has its advantages, such as a steady paycheck. Yet, it also takes an adjustment.

"The biggest change is that school is a learning experience," said Adams, a Sykesville resident. "This is a real job."

While studying automotive technology in school, the students worked on the cars of their friends, family and sometimes South Carroll faculty. The cars were repaired and returned as quickly as possible, though not as fast as in the real work world, where paying customers expect prompt service.

Jeff Leister's son, Brandon, 17, is also in the AYES program. He said working on cars this summer is in line with his long-term career goals.

"This is a career path that will lead me to be a mechanical engineer," Brandon Leister said. "I have to know how to fix cars before I can design them."

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