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By Paul Bradley  /  
2009 July 13 - 12:00 am

Not Grease Monkeys Anymore

It doesn’t take a college degree to figure out that the American automobile industry is in crisis.
General Motors and Chrysler are in bankruptcy proceedings. Foreign automakers are reporting lagging sales. Showrooms are lonely places, with few customers checking out the new models as the bruising economic recession takes its toll.

But even as the auto industry struggles to remake itself, community college programs which are training the auto mechanics of the future are thriving.

For example:

  • In Southeastern Virginia, Tidewater Community College recently dedicated its new Regional Automotive Center, a 31,000-square-foot facility that expands by tenfold the school’s space for its automotive and diesel technology programs. The new building, located in Chesapeake, includes 15 garage bays — including one large enough to handle tractor trailers — nine classrooms and a showroom to display students work.
  • Near Seattle, Shoreline Community College is expanding its Professional Automotive Training Center, adding 22,000 square feet, in the process nearly doubling the size of the existing building and adding 12 new bays and two new classrooms.
  • Near Denver, Arapahoe Community College is building on its much-praised auto technician program. The school is recruiting more women — 10 of its current cadre of 60 students are female — and continuing its push to infuse its program with rigorous academics, prodding students to obtain a college degree rather than merely obtaining a certificate.

“Our students have to know more than just how to work on a car,” said Janna Oakes, the Arapahoe dean who oversees the automotive training program. “They have to know math. They have to know computers. They have to take technical writing. We want to produce technicians who know electronics and can communicate with their customers and their service managers.”

Convergence of Factors

Several factors are converging to create demand for community colleges to train more auto technicians. Demographics are one factor; the current crop of master mechanics is aging and nearing retirement age. Nationwide, dealerships employ about 245,000 technicians, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association. The group foresees 60,000 job openings over the next several years.

Skilled auto technicians can earn good money. Students can earn $50,000 a year within a short time of graduating. Once they achieve the “master” level, the annual salary can be between $80,000 and $100,000 a year.

Moreover, the demands on new auto technicians are more exacting then ever before as cars become more and more complex. With cars loaded with computers and electronics, the ‘grease monkey’ image of an auto mechanic is a thing of the past.

“Today’s service technician job is more skilled and challenging than ever before,” NADA said on its website. “New cars and trucks are far more complex than they used to be, and a modern service bay is beginning to look like a science lab, with lots of expensive, sophisticated diagnostic and repair equipment, including computers.”

That is definitely the case at TCC. The college’s new facility is equipped with an array of computers and sophisticated diagnostic tools typically found in the service department of auto dealerships.

It’s a far cry from the former automotive training center, which was located in a cramped, hot and rented space, said Walter “Bud” Brueggeman, who directs the center and has worked at TCC for 29 years. There, instructors often had to conduct classes in the crowded, noisy shops. Students were elbow-to-elbow.

“We have everything here that we need,” he said. “We wanted it to look a certain way, to create a sense of professionalism. You come in here and you can see it’s kind of place where you don’t fool around.”

Car Donations Critical

Perhaps the most important pieces of equipment, however, are the cars and trucks on which students can work, practice and develop their skills. At TCC, the Hampton Roads Automobile Dealers Association donated 50 vehicles to the auto tech center. The oldest of the vehicles is three years old.

“We really need these cars,” Brueggeman said. “This is how we stay current.”

TCC’s close working relationship with the local automobile dealers group is typical of community colleges with auto technician programs. Not only do colleges rely on dealers for donations of cars and trucks, they also train technicians to work on specific makes. TCC, in addition to its generic training program, offers training programs backed by Chrysler, Honda and Toyota.

Said Scott Smith, 2009 president of the Hampton Roads Automobile Association: “Even in today’s economic crisis, it’s important for HRADA to support TCC in training for future automotive technicians. Our citizens are driving their cars longer and need well-trained technicians in the dealerships to perform maintenance and solve complex problems with their vehicles.

“Today’s technician has to be prepared for a technologically advanced environment in the automotive industry, and TCC provides their students the opportunity to train in a state-of-the-art setting.”

Students can choose from among eight core subjects: engine repair, automatic transmission and transaxle, manual drive train and axles, suspension and steering, brakes, electrical and electronic systems, heating and air conditioning and engine performance.

The center’s offerings are shaped by a 50-member advisory board, which meets quarterly, Brueggeman said.

“They tell us what they need, and we try to provide it,” he said.

Students alternate between 8-week stints of instruction at the center with 8 weeks of on-the-job training in the service department of a local auto dealer. Last fall, the center enrolled 450 students, a number Brueggeman expects to jump to 750 this fall.

Across the country, at Shoreline Community College, the growing demand for more skilled auto technicians prompted the school to expand its automotive training center, said Donald Schultz, a former dean who is heading the program on an interim basis.

No Outsourcing

“Every day when I drive to work, I see a ribbon of tail lights in front of me,” he said. “Every one of those cars have to be serviced and maintained. The thing about automobile servicing is that it is not something that can be outsourced to India. It has to be done here.”

Schultz said the center has agreements with local dealerships for in-service education. With automobile makers making new models every year, the need for mechanics to burnish their skills is acute.

“When the expansion is done, we’ll have 57,000 square feet of space,” he said. “We view the entire project as a business. Our primary customers are the new car dealers. We have a customer, and we’re trying to provide a high-quality service to them.”

But while the center is doing well, the ailing economy had had an effect, Schultz said. Donations of vehicles are down, and graduates are finding it a little more difficult to find a job, he said.

Arapahoe Community College has also experienced a downturn in the number of donated vehicles, Oakes said.

“We have an auto industry that has needs, but the manufacturers are really hurting,” she said.

Some dealers are particularly reluctant to donate hybrid vehicles, which are both expensive and in relatively high demand. Oakes said the college has applied for a state Department of Energy grant to buy seven hybrid cars.

Still, Arapahoe has won notice for its effort to infuse academic rigor into its automotive technology program. When he was named head of the program in 2007, Jerry Viola announced an intention to transform the program into “the Harvard of Automotive Technology.”

To do that, the college has aimed the program at students who are serious and committed about forging a career in auto repair, rather than hobbyists who merely want to tinker with their cars, Oakes said. No every student is admitted to the program.

Students are personally interviewed by Viola. They must pass a drug screening, undergo a criminal background check and have a clean driving record – all requirements of working in an auto dealership.

In addition, students also have to take interpersonal communication, technical writing and management classes. The automotive technician program has worked with the college’s English, Physics and Math faculty to adapt their curriculum so it is relevant to automotive technology.

The standards have produced complaints in some quarters. The American Civil Liberties Union complained that the drug test amounted to illegal discrimination, but the college stood by its standards.

That choice has helped the reputation of the automotive program, Oakes said. Two years ago, the auto technology program produced just four graduates. This year, it produced 18.

“This is a program that was going down the tubes,” Oakes said. “By making the standards clear, we have been able to turn it around.”

Comments: editor@ccweek.com

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