Wanted: highly trained, highly paid technicians

Technology: Mechanics of yesterday are being replaced by trained service and repair technicians who can fix the computer-driven automobiles of today.

May 28, 2002|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Auto mechanics, or grease monkeys as they were often called, have gone the way of rumble seats and mechanical brakes.

In their place are highly paid computer technicians, and they are in very short supply.

"The market for technicians - we don't call them mechanics anymore - is very competitive," said Peter Kitzmiller, president of the Maryland New Car and Truck Dealers Association, a trade group representing the vast majority the state's 350 franchised new-car dealerships.

"The good ones are like baseball players. They can just about write their own paychecks," Kitzmiller said. "A good technician can make $70,000, $80,000 or $90,000, or more. A lot of them make that."

Industry officials say there is a shortage of 60,000 trained service and repair technicians, and that number is expected to nearly double in five years.

"This is the reason some motorists have to make appointments with their dealers two weeks in advance to have service work done," said Richard Glenn, manager of the Maryland New Car and Truck Dealers Association's Automotive Youth Educational Systems program.

AYES was launched in 1995 by John F. Smith, when he was president and chief executive of General Motors Corp. He is now chairman.

The aim of the national program is to attract young people to careers as automotive technicians. It is a partnership among auto manufacturers, high schools and auto dealerships. It is sponsored by most of the world's largest automakers.

There are seven AYES schools in Maryland, including one at Sollers Point/Southeastern Technical High School in Dundalk.

Jack Westermeyer, an AYES instructor at Sollers Point, said the intention of the plan is twofold: to solve the shortage of technicians and launch students into what can be a rewarding career field.

It works like this: Students in the 10th grade are offered an introductory course in auto repair. It involves one hour and 45 minutes a day learning the basics of such auto systems as electronics, steering and suspension.

The best students, or those Westermeyer calls "the cream of the crop," take more advanced auto repair courses in their junior year and work in the service department of a car dealership over the summer months.

By the time the students reach their senior year, half of the school day is spent working at a dealer's repair shop under the supervision of a mentor. The other half of the day is spent in traditional classes such as English, math and social studies.

Students pay only $345 for a box of tools valued at $3,000. The tool manufacturer and a local car dealership pay the rest. "Each school does things a little different," said Westermeyer, "but this is typical."

Harry Bark, 18, is a graduate of the Sollers Point program, and he believes that he is "set for life." He works at the Al Packer Lincoln/Mercury and Jeep dealership on Belair Road in Baltimore.

Bark said he earns about $25,000 a year. "None of my friends are making anything close to what I'm making," he said during a break from performing a 50,000-mile tuneup on a Jeep Cherokee.

"I got into this because I like working on cars," he said. "I didn't realize how much money I could earn. I plan to stay with it, continue training. I can make $90,000 a year."

Buddy Bowman, 16, an 11th-grader at Sollers Point, said he had planned to go on to college, but the auto repair program was a lot more fun. He talks about being able to support a family in the future and believes that in a few years he may be earning more than his father, a steelworker at Sparrows Point.

Glenn said the shortage of technicians dates back more than 10 years. As cars became more sophisticated and computer-driven, he said, many of the older mechanics didn't want to take the training needed to stay on top of their trade.

"You need to understand computers to work on them. There is more computer power in today's cars than on the Apollo 11 moon rocket," Glenn said.

Denise Patton-Pace, a spokeswoman for Automotive Retailing Today, a coalition of auto manufacturers and dealers, blamed the shortage of technicians on stereotyping and parents' misunderstanding. She said a negative image of auto repair has deterred young people from choosing a career under the hood.

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