The people who repair cars and trucks can earn a good living. Today's vehicles are loaded with technology and are getting more complicated all the time. Trained professionals are required to fix modern vehicles, but fewer people are learning how. The industry is facing a shortage of 60,000 mechanics workers and is forced to go to great lengths to find help. 90.3 WCPN's Mike West reports.
Mike West- The Greater Cleveland Automobile Dealers Association is part of a partnership called "Youth Automotive Educational Systems." The program matches high school students with service departments like this one, at a BMW dealership in Middleburg Heights. A student works in the shop while going to school, (and) if the arrangement goes smoothly, the dealership will pay for an additional 2 years of training after graduation.
Ben Zywiec is 17 years old, and an ideal candidate for the program.
Ben Zywiec- When I was little, my dad was a mechanic and I just grew up around... All used to race stock cars and just got my feet in all kinds of different stuff.
MW- In addition to work training programs, the auto repair industry is also working to improve the image of these professionals. They're now called auto technicians and most service bays are not likely to be excessively greasy or smelly. Next to tool boxes you'll find computer screens, something unheard of 20 years ago. But the image of the "grease monkey" is still haunts mechanics - (it's) something Zywiec insists doesn't bother him and he says his high schools peers don't look down on the profession or tease him about his career choice.
BZ- A lot of my friends are past that. Maybe when I was in elementary school a little bit, but that was about it.
MW- Ron Komito is the service manager. He says BMW and many other companies and dealerships have similar programs. Komito says scouts have always looked for promising mechanics at technical colleges, but the demand is rising so much that younger kids are being lured into repair shops and courted like athletes.
Ron Komito- They're recruiting good technical people from the high schools before they reach the technical college. At that point the dealership gets to experience how good some of these kids are and as to whether they really want to stay a technician or they're just doing it as a fad or a fun thing, and the real good technicians will then be sponsored by the dealerships to go to the technical college. As opposed to the gentleman himself coming out of technical college paying his own way into BMW school, the dealership will now sponsor it.
MW- Free training and jobs during school still haven't been enough the close the gap on demand for mechanics, and auto industry insiders insist pay shouldn't be a problem. The average wage for an auto technician is about $34,000 a year, and if additional training is added they can eventually earn up to $75,000 or more. But convincing high school graduates to go to trade school instead of college can be a hard sell. Marcus Stanley is an assistant professor of economics at Case Western Reserve University.
Marcus Stanley- When people look to the future, which I think really is what people do when they make their education decision, they see that over a long period of time the wages of college graduates have been increasing relative to the wages of high school graduates. About 30 years ago you had a situation where college graduates, or a typical college graduate would make about 40-50% more than your typical high school graduate. Now you've got a situation where your typical college graduate makes 75-80% more than your typical high school graduate.
MW- Stanley says another problem facing trade workers is not being able to leave the shop and go into management without a degree. But he says auto technicians have advantages other trade workers may not.
MS- Auto mechanics are actually an interesting case because that's something where you could own your own garage without a college degree. But in a lot of cases... say if your a skilled machinist. Which is a good job, you know - you make $35,000 or $40,000 after an apprenticeship in Northeast Ohio as skilled machinist and that's before overtime. But you're not going to be able to move into management in the middle of your career, you'll really need a higher degree.
MW- Stanley feels most young people are avoiding trades because they feel they'll eventually make more money by having a college degree, even if some blue collar positions offer higher starting pay. But he says they're also seeking social status when choosing whether to go to college. He says even if a top mechanic makes more than a low paid lawyer, a suit and tie can look better than coveralls. But there's an irony to the problem. Stanley says if the current trend continues, there will be fewer mechanics. But in the long run, the growing shortage will mean higher wages, which will in turn attract more people to the profession.
MS- I think the most affective way of doing that will be to raise wages. And you know, if blue collar jobs are unpopular among young people, then wages will eventually will go up. This is a self-correcting process. As long as people need their cars fixed, there's going to be the auto mechanics to do it. It's just a question of how much we're going to have to pay if people are reluctant to go into these jobs.
MW- Car dealers and repair shops are not the only ones suffering from the a shortage of mechanics. Consumers should also be concerned. It's not unusual for people to pay over $80 an hour for auto repair labor - and prices will go even higher. More Americans than ever are buying cars. And tomorrow's mechanics will have to have advanced computer skills in order to work on new hybrid and fuel cell vehicles that are starting to roll off assembly lines. In Cleveland, Mike West, 90.3 WCPN News.