Wanted: Skilled Mechanics Shops Scramble To Fill Slots For Trained Automotive Technicians

Against one wall at TDC Auto Repair on Dishman-Mica Road are shelves lined with repair manuals.

Hefting two, owner Tom Connors said the manuals contain most of what a mechanic needed to know to fix a cranky automobile made between 1971 and 1981.

Now, he said, the instructions for a single year’s makes are so voluminous they are stored on computer CDs for easier reference .

“The technician has to be able to decipher that,” said Connors, who has been frustrated by a long search for qualified help.

He said he has been running a classified ad for a mechanic - the industry prefers the word technician - since October. None of the 10 applicants had the necessary certification from the Automotive Service Association.

“It’s next to impossible to get anybody who’s qualified,” Connors said.

His problem is a common one. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 890,000 mechanics in the country, with the potential need for as many as 215,000 more by the year 2005.

In a field that pays trained workers upwards of $12 an hour, plus benefits, after just a few years, thousands of jobs are bypassed like so many family sedans at a hot rod show.

The reasons are varied.

Connors said master mechanics must be jacks of several trades - electronics, plumbing, heating and air-conditioning, hydraulics - with tools to match.

But students specializing in just one of those trades can get started at comparable wages with a much smaller investment. “It just doesn’t add up,” Connors said.

Dirty fingernails are a tough sell, especially to the quality students officials say the industry must attract.

“We’re looking for A and B students out of high school,” said Connors, who sits on advisory committees at University High School and Spokane Community College.

He and others said the industry also is haunted by a dated stereotype, the loopy “shade-tree mechanic” with baseball cap askew, a character not unlike Lowell on the television show “Wings.”

The reality is an industry that rolls out new, ever more sophisticated products almost monthly. Keeping up is a challenge for those already in the field, let alone the neophytes.

Ed Cushman, owner of C&H; Foreign Auto Repair, notes that the current Cadillac engine incorporates more computer controls than a 1968-vintage spacecraft.

“The people we need are probably bound for the aerospace industry,” agreed Doug Slack, who teaches electronics systems to General Motors technicians around the Northwest.

To correct an electrical problem, he said, a technician must have a thorough knowledge of theory and good reasoning skills.

Slack said he regularly asks school administrators he meets with what their No. 1 investment is.

Most believe it’s their home, he said, but when number of purchases, depreciation, fuel, maintenance and other costs are factored in, transportation is the biggest household expense.

Yet, he said, those same administrators point some of their least astute students to the automotive field. “It drives me wild,” he said.

“It’s pretty hard, the knowledge that you need to be an auto mechanic,” concurred Phil Shelley, an instructor at the School District 81 Skills Center.

The center’s automotive program will graduate 36 students this year. Shelley said overall enrollment is split between those with a genuine interest in the auto trades and others looking for easy credits.

“They just don’t get it,” he said.

At SCC, the Automotive Building has separate shops for machining, auto technology, and collision repair, plus a complete auto parts outlet. There are 11 instructors in the automotive program, consistently recognized as one of the strongest in the state.

Chairman Butch Riley said local dealerships and independent shops are good about keeping the facility in current technology like testing stands, and in cars to work on.

But they can’t provide more students, which Riley said he could use in substantially greater numbers.

About 200 are enrolled in the four SCC specialties. None of them, Riley said, has all the students that could be accommodated.

Instructor Ray Lindquist, who also drives a student-made dragster, said the first-year curriculum is 25 percent hands-on, 75 percent classroom, with the breakdown reversed in the second year.

“Second-year shops are run as close to an actual shop as possible,” he said.

A few students get the benefit of sponsorship from area Toyota dealers, which also provide vehicles and instructional aids like a full-scale mock-up of an electrical system.

The relationship is much like more extensive programs operating at community colleges in Renton and Seattle.

Dan Flanagan, publisher of “The Manifold” newsletter for independent mechanics in the Puget Sound area, is a fan of such agreements between industry and the schools.

Typically, he said, dealerships sign contracts with the schools that allow them to use their own curriculum and, more importantly, select the students.

The instructors are paid by the state or school district, but teach only special classes on new technology to students not in a dealer program.

The students receive 12 weeks of mostly academic training on campus, then 12 weeks of hands-on experience at one of participating dealerships, where they are paid.

The cycle is repeated for two years, after which graduates have associate degrees and test scores that will certify them as journeyman technicians after a year in an ASA shop.

Every graduate gets a job.

By comparison, Flanagan said, generic community college programs cannot be selective when enrolling students. Nor can the students build a relationship with a dealership that could assure them a fast start when they graduate.

Riley said Spokane, with far fewer dealerships than Seattle, can’t support the kind of factory-specific programs in place on the West Side.

The best SCC could hope for, he said, is an ongoing relationship with manufacturers and dealers in the area so students have ongoing access to new trends in the industry.

For example, Cadillac donated one of its Northstar engines, with features that negate the need for a tune-up before a car hits 100,000 miles.

And the factories have sponsored dozens of seminars in the last two years, Riley said.

But, said Cushman, moving from classroom to shop floor is still a jolt to most students. To ease the transition, he said garage owners and school officials are trying to build an apprenticeship program that could be launched this fall with about 10 students.

Participants would split their days between the college and repair shops, where they would watch and assist experienced technicians, Cushman said.

Cushman said the industry must reach beyond the colleges, and even beyond the high schools, to get students thinking early about a career in automobile repair.

He said he has attended career days at some middle schools to get the industry’s message out.

Riley noted that a disproportionate number of students come from outlying areas. To exploit that connection, SCC is putting together an advanced placement program with Wilbur High School that will reward students who take the school’s twoyear mechanics program with onequarter of credit at SCC.

Riley said he hopes to have three other schools, including the Skills Center, on board by fall.

Another possibility is attracting more women, who comprise less than 5 percent of those in the field now.

“If females were to look at the program they would probably be better than most of the guys,” observed Connors.

At SCC, Shanni Burnette recently won a $1,000 scholarship in automotive technology from the North American Council of Automotive Teachers.

Burnette said she had never touched a car before enrolling at SCC but, after checking out the program and industry thoroughly, was convinced she could be a mechanic.

“I like getting dirty,” she said.

These programs, and the national attention the Clinton administration is focusing on vocational education, could eventually produce a new generation of automotive technicians.

Meanwhile, the work is piling up.

Connors said he knows of two shops that closed because they could not get the help they needed. Dealerships, he said, are sending him cars their technicians can’t get to.

And at times he turns away as much work as he accepts, all the while continuing his search for more skilled bodies.

Slack, who said he knows of proficient mechanics making $100,000 a year, is sympathetic.

“There are still grease monkeys in this world,” he said. “The fact is, they don’t cut it.”

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: PAY COMPARISON Average hourly wage in Spokane County for selected occupations that do not require a college degree, based on 1990 survey.

Electrician…………..$14.72 Machinist…………….$13.33 Maintenance mechanic…..$12.89 Carpenter…………….$12.85 Painter………………$11.39 Auto mechanic…………$10.46 Forklift operator……..$9.83 Teller……………….$6.27 Motel/hotel maid………$4.55 Fast-food worker………$4.49 SOURCE: Washington State Employment Security Department

This sidebar appeared with the story: PAY COMPARISON Average hourly wage in Spokane County for selected occupations that do not require a college degree, based on 1990 survey.

Electrician…………..$14.72 Machinist…………….$13.33 Maintenance mechanic…..$12.89 Carpenter…………….$12.85 Painter………………$11.39 Auto mechanic…………$10.46 Forklift operator……..$9.83 Teller……………….$6.27 Motel/hotel maid………$4.55 Fast-food worker………$4.49 SOURCE: Washington State Employment Security Department

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