- The Washington Times - Friday, June 19, 2009

With the downturn the automotive industry has been experiencing you’d think high school students would have no interest in building a future in the auto field. And you would be wrong.

According to Yahoo Hot Jobs, auto service and repair technicians — who used to be called “mechanics” — are much in demand, as vehicle electronics get more complicated and as the economic downturn prompts more of us to hang on to our cars longer. Automotive education programs in high schools throughout the United States are filled to capacity.

“There is a national shortage of 50,000 auto technicians, so this is an amazingly good time to enter the field,” said Mark Scheinberg, president of the New York Auto Dealers Association, which hosts a national competition each year for the best automotive education students in the U.S. and Canada.

Thirty teams of two students each competed for the title of “The Nation’s Best Automotive Technicians” and thousands of dollars in college scholarship prize money.

Under the watchful eyes of their teachers and certified master technicians, the teams had a time limit to diagnose and repair problems on new cars, which had been sabotaged by the master techs with multiple mechanical and computer problems. Most teams were made up of a mechanical whiz kid with a love of hands-on and an electronic specialist more interested in the computer technology that drives safety systems like traction control.

“Electronics is the hardest to teach. My kids mostly prefer mechanics to computers,” Raul Ortiz, a teacher at Damascus High School in Maryland’s Montgomery County, told me as we watched Luke Gray and Shawn Nugent work on a Mercedes-Benz C350. All the vehicles in the competition are donated by the manufacturers, who are active sponsors and participants in the competition, along with tire manufacturers and other parts and tools suppliers.

The cars and teams are matched up a few weeks ahead of the competition by drawing names out of a hat. The high school teams then have to enlist a local dealer to work with the technicians there and familiarize themselves with the vehicle, as well as the manufacturer and dealer’s service and repair procedures. Each student team is sponsored by the local, or statewide, dealer association.

“It’s about more than just the skill set to diagnose and repair a vehicle,” Mr. Scheinberg said, adding, “they also have to know how to write down the work on the repair card so the dealer gets paid for the warranty work, or so the customer can submit the claim to his or her insurance provider.”

Jessica Lawrence, from Watauga High School in Boone, N.C., said she’s always loved being around cars, even though her two sisters “don’t like anything about cars” except maybe getting their driver’s licenses one day. She was the electronics half of her Team Toyota. Teammate Daniel Muller, the mechanical half, said Jessica is “better than anyone.”

“A master technician is precious to a dealership,” said Mr. Scheinberg, who said such experts can earn upwards of $100,000 a year. No wonder high school automotive technician programs are full. Jessica’s teacher, Larry Jones, told me his program has a waiting list for the fall semester.

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