For high school seniors who want to train in computer sciences, Gerod Strother would like them to consider popping an automobile hood.
“Most new vehicles have anywhere from 15 to 30 microprocessors – small computers – on the car. And that’s where we really try to push the technical side of this,” said Strother, an automotive technology instructor at Texas State Technical College’s Sweetwater campus.
And, mechanics – or automotive technicians, as they are called today – are in high demand.
“They say there’s a nursing shortage across the nation … automobile technicians are right in there with them – I think about 60,000 to 80,000 short across America,” Strother said.
That shortage is an issue in Abilene and the region.
“In our areas, every dealer that I talked to is in need of at least one, two or three technicians,” said Jeff Clement, parts and service director for the Star dealerships, two located in Abilene and one in Big Spring.
It’s the worst staffing shortage in his 38 years in the business, he said.
For customers, that means waiting longer for automotive repairs, especially if the work is significant and parts are unavailable due to supply chain disruptions.
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Why is there a shortage of automotive technicians?
The gap between master technicians retiring and new graduates to fill their ranks was widening before the pandemic, Clement said.
COVID-19 acerbated the situation.
“Over the last many years, we have instilled in our youth that the magic token for success in a career is a college education. Some careers that are very lucrative – and this is one of them – do not require a four-year degree from a college,” Clement said.
Automotive technicians can be trained for two years or less at a technical school or junior college to be hired at shops and dealerships.
While earning an entry-level paycheck, new hires go through more on-the-job training to become certified as master technicians through the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence and/or individual manufacturers.
“It does require education. It does require time, but technical training kind of took a back seat for so long,” Clement said.
That technical aspect of automotive repair is another reason for the gap. Gone are the days when a proficient mechanic could diagnose a problem just by listening to the engine run or “take a stethoscope and put it up against something” to pinpoint the issue, Strother said.
“I think from pretty much 1970 through ’80s through ’90s, even through early 2000s, you basically have the same technology,” Strother said.
Starting 2010-12, automotive emissions systems began evolving to meet new government standards, leading to more computerized systems that required different skill sets to pinpoint problems, he said.
“We’re out here working on a ’68 Mustang. I’m telling the students you know, man, this is a dinosaur,” he said. “This is where it all began.
“And then we’ve got stuff in the shop that you can’t even begin to troubleshoot unless you have a high-tech scanner that you can put on it to kind of lead you down the right path,” Strother said.
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The diagnostic steps for working on newer vehicles have evolved extensively, said Matt Parker, an automotive technology instructor at The LIFT Center of the Abilene Independent School District. The facility houses career and technical education programs and the Academy of Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Science (ATEMS).
“You have to be able to decipher a shop manual that tells you to follow this step, and then based on your results, you move on to the next step,” Parker said.
The computerized diagnostic machine might give “five, six, eight different codes out of the computer of the car,” Clement said.
The technician uses experience and knowledge “to decipher what’s really wrong. It’s not just plug in and go, ‘Oh, it’s this sensor,’ and you’re on your way. That’s the technical side of it. It just takes know-how and experience and knowledge that you get with the education and time on the job,” he said.
Despite the technical advances in vehicles, the job remains physically demanding.
“You get somebody that’s 45-50 years old, and they don’t want to get on the floor, and the money may be good, but they may not want to roll around on the floor. They may not want to be in a leaned-over position for an extended period of time,” Strother said.
Competitive wages, being in demand are the rewards of an automotive technology career
For those who enjoy working on automobiles, good-paying jobs await.
The five students who graduated from the last class in December at TSTC-Sweetwater are employed, making $15 to $22 an hour, Strother said.
“The demand will always be there,” Parker said. “It’s a career that’s not going away.”
The training needed to repair automobiles is why the industry has moved away from the term mechanic. Young people should not be discovered from pursing the career, Clement said.
“You might have somebody tell you, ‘You don’t want to be a mechanic.’ Well, that’s not what we do. They’re technicians and they’re highly trained and they’re very valuable,” Clement said.
Someone just out of a training program, who has a good work ethic and continues to learn on the job, can far surpass the published national median starting salary of $34,000 a year in as little as six months, Clement said.
“Technicians in our field that have a little bit of the factory training and a little bit of experience are making $60,000-plus a year,” Clement said.
And, understanding the technology side of automotive repairs is advantageous to working in other areas of a dealership, from service writing to business office to sales, Parker said.
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Training opportunities exist for auto technicians in the Abilene area
To recruit more people into automotive technology programs, several dealerships and repair shops formed in 2017 the Abilene Automotive Education Alliance with Abilene ISD, Cisco College and TSTC.
The alliance is a way to support local and area training programs and expose high school students to the careers in the automotive industry, said Clement, who is an alliance member.
Abilene ISD’s automotive technology program has grown in popularity since The LIFT opened in August at 2034 Quantum Loop south of the Abilene Regional Airport.
About 200 students in grades ninth through 12th are enrolled in the automotive technology program, more than what was initially expected. The increase necessitated adding a second instruction, said Jay Ashby, The LIFT Center director.
“Students matriculate from that freshman year through automotive technology one and two their sophomore and junior years and then finish out with either hands-on experience in a workplace or getting hands-on experience in our automotive shop,” Ashby said.
The automotive technology shop has five work bays, classrooms, parts warehouse and industry-standard tools, equipment and diagnostic equipment.
Students work on vehicles, which can come for dealerships or school staff, students and students’ parents.
A customer waiting area is near the automotive shop, and a point-of-sale system will be installed so students in the fall can learn the business side of the industry, Ashby said.
“We’re setting up a system to where folks can reserve a time, within our school schedule, for them to bring their car in, and our students will get to service those vehicles,” Ashby said.
Any money collected for services go back into the program to pay for supplies and to fund student projects, such as what is necessary to compete in SkillsUSA events, Ashby said. SkillsUSA is a nonprofit that brings together students, teachers and industry representatives to develop a skilled workforce.
In addition to 12- and 15-month training and certification programs to start a career in automotive technology, TSTC-Sweetwater offers students a plan to earn an associate’s degree if they take extra classes outside automotive.
The Cisco College campus in Abilene also offers two- and four-semester automotive technology training programs that enable students to earn certification or an associate’s degree, according to its website.
The associate’s degree track is an option Strother promotes with his students. He tells them, “You’re gonna probably want to move up or do something differently. You may be a hiring manager. So, that associate’s degree can come in pretty handy.”
Clement said he his hopeful that the alliance between businesses and training programs will help turnaround the region’s automotive technician shortage.
“People in the automotive industry enjoy challenges. They really do enjoy challenges. It’s just in your blood,” Clement said.
Laura Gutschke is a general assignment reporter and food columnist and manages online content for the Reporter-News. If you appreciate locally driven news, you can support local journalists with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com.