Easing the tech shortage by training tomorrow's techs today

Easing the tech shortage by training tomorrow's techs today

- in Automotive
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LOS ANGELES — The end-of-class bell has rung, but three boys still are tinkering with a car on a lift in the auto shop of the charter school run by Optimist Youth Homes and Family Services in this city’s Highland Park neighborhood.

Finally, shop teacher Brian Kies tells the boys to leave so they won’t be late for their next class. “It’s hard to get them to stop working,” Kies says.

Student Samuel Magana, 18, says he likes the “hands on” instruction. The class has whetted his interest in exploring a career as a service technician, he adds.

Optimist, a nonprofit corporation, works with at-risk young people. The auto repair program at the boarding school for boys teaches the basics of fixing vehicles.

The hope is that the students will enroll in a degree program at one of the many community colleges in the Los Angeles area that offer service tech training.

Income from fixed operations is increasingly crucial to the profitability of new-vehicle dealerships, but finding talented service techs can be hard. Dealerships and dealer associations are partnering with community colleges and other educational institutions to train tomorrow’s techs.

That investment pays off for the dealerships, the schools and the students.

‘Pay to play’

“The need for qualified technicians has never been greater,” says Pete Smith, dealer principal at Bob Smith Toyota in La Crescenta.

Smith is offering to pay tuition for motivated and qualified graduates of Optimist’s auto class to enroll in the Toyota T-TEN tech training program at Citrus College in nearby Glendora.

Climbing the ladder

Typical career ladder for service technicians

    • C level: Beginning techs; trained in basic maintenance such as vehicle inspection, predelivery services, oil changes, minor brake services, tire and wheel services
    • B level: Graduates of training programs at community colleges, other schools or automaker initiatives; have 2 to 5 years of experience and some diagnostic skills; perform most repairs and maintenance; may have passed National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence certification tests
    • A level: Master automotive technicians; passed National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence series of 8 certification tests or achieved brand-specific master certification level; generally have 5 or more years of experience; may have advanced certifications related to engine performance and other specialty areas

Source: National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence

Schools that partner with Toyota agree to a specific curriculum that includes classes and internships. The schools must be certified by the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation.

The Citrus College program has been “a great place for us to get technicians,” Smith told Fixed Ops Journal. He says subsidizing students’ tuition is a fair price.

“We need to pay to play,” Smith says.

The Greater Los Angeles New Car Dealers Association, to which Pete Smith belongs, has donated $35,000 over the past 2 1/2 years to pay for improvements to the Optimist school’s auto shop.

“This was a very feel-good thing that we saw the value of,” says Bob Smith, the association’s executive director. Bob Smith, a former dealer, is Pete Smith’s cousin and a grandson of the Bob Smith for whom the Toyota dealership is named.

Honda’s PACT

Like Toyota, American Honda Motor Co. works with community colleges to train service techs.

Rio Hondo College in Whittier, Calif., is one of the many colleges with which Honda partners. Students in the school’s automotive department can apply to be part of Honda’s Professional Automotive Career Training, or PACT, program.

Those chosen, after a few months of study, are assigned to a Honda dealership for on-the-job training, says Steve Tomory, an automotive technology professor at Rio Hondo.

Tomory, a master tech certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, has taught at Rio Hondo for 18 years. The skills a service tech needs have changed over that time, Tomory says.

Techs must be able to gather data and apply critical thinking to diagnose problems in a vehicle’s electronic system, he says. That amounts to more than just repairing or replacing a part, he adds.

Mark Lestico, parts manager and fixed ops director at Cerritos Acura in Cerritos, Calif., concurs. A two-year degree from a community college automotive program is “a must” for service techs to learn electrical diagnostic skills, he says.

“The days of hiring a young person off the street and training them to become a tech are pretty much gone,” Lestico says.

Cerritos Acura has hired at least a dozen Rio Hondo graduates since Honda began partnering with the college in 2010, Lestico says. He adds that 7 of his 20 service techs graduated from the Rio Hondo PACT program.

In house

The Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association has taken a different approach to tech training. In 2005, association members paid $30 million to build an automotive training and education center in Whitestone, N.Y.

The dealer association partners with Lincoln Technical Institute, a nationwide network of private, for-profit career training schools. About 500 students are enrolled in the 13-month auto technology program at the New York center.

Schienberg: “Built-in recruitment”

Students with good grades earn internships at dealerships, says Mark Schienberg, the association’s president. That creates “a built-in recruitment” process for dealers, he adds.

The chronic shortage of service techs costs dealerships a lot of money, says Rob Gehring, president of Fixed Performance Inc., a fixed ops consultancy in Huron, Ohio. A service department that lacks techs can lose customers who can’t schedule timely appointments, he notes.

Dealership-school partnerships to train service techs “need to be expanded,” Gehring says.

Talent competition

Collin Sewell, president of Sewell Family of Cos. in Odessa, Texas, says service techs have the same skills as computer engineers, making them more attractive to employers in other fields.

Sewell says his dealership group invests $100,000 in a year of training for a starting tech.

Dealerships must offer a competitive work culture and environment to attract and keep good techs, he says.

“There is not a shortage of people who know how to do those things — there is a shortage of people willing to do it,” Sewell says. “The person who can write code for a computer company is … sitting in a cool office sipping a cappuccino.”

The service and parts department in Sewell’s new Ford Lincoln dealership in Odessa, due to open next spring, will be climate-controlled and include a locker room and showers.

At the Optimist school’s auto shop, teacher Kies seeks something more basic for his students — more cars to work on. The supply now is limited to faculty cars that need service.

Kies also hopes to line up internships with area dealerships, although many of his students don’t yet have driver’s licenses. He says his class offers students “a pipeline to community colleges and trade schools.”

Kies adds, “Without the Optimist Youth Homes, a lot of them wouldn’t even graduate high school.”

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