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Old 07-23-2003, 06:08   #1 (permalink)
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U.S.: CAREERS IN CAR REPAIR: Have skill? The pay's good

Graduates can't fill shops' huge demand for diagnosticians
July 23, 2003
BY JAWEED KALEEM
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

WASHINGTON -- When George Bates said he wanted to drop his advanced-placement courses to take auto repair classes, his high school guidance counselor was appalled.

"She told me I was throwing my future away," Bates said.

Today, Bates, 26, makes more than $85,000 a year as a service technician at a dealership in Washington's Virginia suburbs. One reason he makes so much is that skilled mechanics are in short supply. Some industry estimates put the shortage as high as 60,000 nationwide.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says the auto-repair workforce needs to grow by 35,000 a year for the next decade to meet the sharply increasing demand. Industry experts say the shortage is greatest for high-end diagnostic experts such as Bates.

Post-high-school auto repair programs that turn out highly skilled mechanics graduate 10,000 a year at most, the U.S. Department of Education reports. There are no figures available for high school graduates specializing in car repairs.

The mechanic shortage is a big reason auto repairs are so expensive and good repair shops sometimes keep customers waiting for weeks. It's also, in many cases, why repairs are done badly.

"The auto industry is crying for help," said Denise Patton-Pace of Automotive Retailing Today, a McLean, Va.-based coalition of automakers and dealerships nationwide. In a recent survey, 7 out of 10 of her group's dealerships said they needed more qualified mechanics.

While auto warranties now cover more repairs on more cars for a longer time, and fancy options have made cars more complicated, the mechanic population hasn't kept pace.

Last year, 867,000 technicians were available to work on 221 million U.S. cars. That came to one for every 255 cars. In 1994, the number was one technician per 218 cars. The comparisons are based on figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Automobile Dealers Association.

One explanation for the shortage is that virtually no women enter the field. More than 98 percent of car repair technicians are men.

Many of them are just getting by. The median income for U.S. car mechanics last year was $28,490, according to the bureau's figures.

Then there are high-earning technicians such as Bates, a diagnostic technician at Lustine Toyota-Dodge in Woodbridge, Va. He's the guy who steps in when the "check engine" light goes on. Engine and transmission overhauls are his specialties.

Bates worked as a mechanic while earning an auto tech degree at a community college. He went on to Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., earned an engineering degree, joined a defense contractor and decided he liked repairing cars better.

"I'd love to have more higher-skilled techs" like Bates, said his boss, Pete D'Alessandro, the service manager at Lustine Toyota-Dodge. As of last week, he had one entry-level vacancy.

Patton-Pace of the automaker-dealer coalition blamed the mechanic shortage on parents, teachers and high school peers who stereotype repair personnel as greasy and low-paid. "Today's dealership is not a dirty work environment; we need to dispel that myth," she said. "As a master technician, you'd be working mostly with computerized components and could make from $70,000 to $100,000 a year."

Ralph McKinnon, who teaches auto mechanics to high schoolers in Burien, Wash., near Seattle, said he saw a lot of bias like that Bates encountered from his guidance counselor. "I see a reluctance in counselors to let students take vocational courses," as opposed to college-prep courses, McKinnon said.

His school is part of a national coalition called Automotive Youth Educational Systems, based in Troy, which aims to improve car-related classes and provide students with apprenticeships.

Generally, auto repair training relies on school-dealer partnerships. In Los Angeles, the Automotive Training Center, which has graduated 1,100 car repair technicians in the last decade, has links to more than 100 employer-partners.

Such partnerships make sense for dealers, said D'Alessandro, the service manager. "The biggest problem for consumers today is having unskilled and underqualified technicians repair their cars, making incorrect diagnostic decisions. This leads to more problems and higher costs for consumers."
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