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Where are the mechanics?

These aren’t your daddy’s cars anymore, and your daddy can’t work on them. Some of us remember when we could take some box wrenches, a pair of pliers and a couple of screwdrivers and fix just about anything on an automobile.

“Those days are long gone,” said Eric Spasov, owner of Don’s DI Auto Service, 973 E. Desert Inn Road. Today’s cars are much too technical, and the supply of mechanics and technicians with the skills and training to work on them is woefully short, he said.

“I have seven mechanics working for me, and I need three more qualified people right now,” Spasov said. “Good auto techs are very hard to find. Lots of people apply, but most do not come close to having the correct qualifications.”

Spasov said that, like many shops, he hires only ASE-certified technicians. ASE is the abbreviation for the National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence.

A high school diploma may land a person a job in a shop fixing tires, changing oil or relining brakes. But auto shops and dealerships are looking for people who know technology, and that takes additional professional training and education. The auto industry has evolved into high technology over the past few decades. It used to be about mechanical aptitude, but today a typical car may have more than 20 microprocessors interconnected with thousands of lines of codes working together.

Today’s cars are so complex that master mechanics are asked to deal with situations that would have required an engineering degree a few years ago. New powertrain technologies, hybrids, infotainment systems, electric powered vehicles and advanced engine design are among the issues facing technicians. Even the job title has changed from mechanic to technician. There are still mechanics, primarily those who do less technical jobs such as brakes and tires, but the more complex problems are handled by technicians.

Technicians must have good math skills as well as the ability to apply logic to their work. Identifying what a computer tells you is the problem is only part of the solution. The better technicians use their experience and problem-solving thought process to analyze. The laptop has become as important as the socket wrench in fixing a problem, but the laptop can only tell you what the read-outs from the vehicle’s internal processors indicate. Thinking through to the right solution is an important skill that must be developed.

“Our technicians receive extensive training. Four of the 18 we have on staff graduated with associate degrees from the College of Southern Nevada,” said Tom Hodulik, service manager at Henderson Chevrolet. “In addition, General Motors provides many training opportunities both in-house and outside. Technicians can be sent to training school out of state, train at the dealership or receive virtual training by computer from Detroit. All of our technicians are ASE certified.”

Hodulik said that his turnover rate is very low. He has people working for him that have been with the company for 10 to 17 years. The secret is hiring motivated people with the right attitude, then keeping them happy with excellent training, rewards for good work and an environment that fosters good relations.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2010 there were 723,400 automotive service technicians and mechanics in the United States. By 2020, the bureau projects that number will need to increase by nearly 125,000 to meet demand. The average age of today’s technician is in the low 40s. Not only will the industry need skilled people to fill the increase in jobs, but it will need to replace those lost to attrition and retirement.

The average pay for an automotive technician in the Las Vegas-Paradise metropolitan area is $42,670 a year, which is higher than the U.S. average, according to the bureau. With overtime and bonuses, 10 percent earn more than $60,000.

Typically a technician is paid a base salary plus a bonus calculated on a flat rate scale based on the flat rate book for automotive repairs. If the flat rate book calls for a job to take eight hours and the tech finishes it in seven hours, he’s paid for eight hours.

“That’s pretty much the way everyone pays,” Spasov said. “We pay our technicians on billed hours to the customer.”

On the other hand, if the job takes 8½ hours, the technician is still paid for eight hours.

The shortage of mechanics and technicians is compounded not only by the increase in demand for entrants into the field, the supply is dwindling as well. The enthusiasm among young people for a career in the auto industry has diminished.

The automobile once was the means to get together and socialize with peers. Today, social media such as Facebook and Twitter, cellphones with instant messaging and emails have become the preferred method of communication.

A recent University of Michigan study reported that in 1980, 87 percent of 19-year-olds had a driver’s license. By 2010, only 70 percent had one.

“We’re finding we’re going to run short of technicians in the very near future,” said Rich Orbain, manager for General Motors’ Service Technical College. “It’s already getting very difficult to get young people interested in this as a career.”

The recession has helped fuel this demand as people hold onto their automobiles longer or buy used vehicles. Older vehicles need more repairs than newer ones. On the other hand, competition among car companies has resulted in extended warranties for longer periods. People are more likely to bring in a vehicle for warranty service if something malfunctions or that dreadful check engine light comes on, instead of taking a chance on it not being a major problem.

Budgetary restraints have required high schools to cut programs, and some of the first to go are the courses that provide technical and mechanical education. Schools are either cutting auto repair programs altogether or limiting the number of students that can be admitted to classes. Those high schools that still do offer courses may provide just the basics in shop and mechanics.

However, a few high schools across the country have aligned themselves with the Automotive Youth Educational Systems (www.ayes.org) to bring advanced instruction to the classroom. The courses include on-the-job training with local automotive dealers that prepare the student as entry-level automotive technicians. One Las Vegas high school affiliated with AYES is Southeast Career and Technical Academy, formerly called Vo-Tech, at 5710 Mountain Vista St. The academy is a magnet public high school, part of the Clark County School District.

Hodulik said that he has technicians who went through the academy’s program and are performing well. He brings high school students into the dealership as interns to give them experience in a real world shop. This helps them decide if this is a career they want. He sees more girls entering the program , and opportunities for women are just as available as they are for the men.

The College of Southern Nevada is the only school in Las Vegas that offers an auto mechanics degree program. A student has the option of choosing from several programs. The 53-credit automotive technology program prepares students for eight ASE certification exams. Graduates of the collision and repair program are ready to take the Industry Council for Automotive Repair exams.

In the longer 75-credit associate degree program, students will complete an internship with local companies to gain experience. Two other Nevada schools offering programs in automotive technology are Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno and Western Nevada College in Carson City.

Technical schools, trade schools and colleges are springing up across the country to address the issue. One school mentioned by service managers is Wyotech , which offers programs with comprehensive course s in automotive, diesel, collision, motorcycle and marine services. Wyotech has eight campuses across the country. The closest campuses to Las Vegas are Laramie, Wyo., and Fremont, Long Beach and Sacramento in California.

All of the campuses have either on-campus dormitories or provide services to assist students in finding appropriate housing off campus. Wyotech, like other accredited postsecondary schools, attracts military veterans and those who attend qualify for VA educational benefits.

Once an applicant has received a certification or degree and passed the exams, the hiring process still presents challenges. Some shops are plagued with high turnover while others seem to hang on to their good employees . There are shops so desperate to hire mechanics that they’ll take anyone who walks through the door. This is a formula for disaster, several local service managers say.

“An applicant must have the right mental attitude. I call it RMA,” Hodulik said. “He or she has to have a good work ethic and want to learn.”

Having the right education, training and skills aren’t enough. Technicians must be able to get along with customers, co-workers and management.

Tom Berg, senior editor for Truckinginfo, the website of Heavy Duty Trucking Magazine, recommends the Scheig testing system from Scheig Associates in Gig Harbor, Wash. The Scheig test is a 20-plus page written test that judges a prospective employee’s suitability to a particular job measured against people already doing the job well. Most of the questions deal with attitudes and behavior related to work ethic, motivation to do quality work, dedication and consideration for others.

Berg said that a Los Angeles trucking company that has been using the Scheig test for five years cut turnover from more that 50 percent to under 20 percent.

According to Dennis Chapman, service manager at the company’s branch in Long Beach, “The guys I hired with the Scheig test tend to do repairs in under book times, compared to those I hired before. Also, their quality of work is better.”

Another manager at a company with a short-haul fleet said that his turnover rate dropped to 27 percent after he started using the tests to screen applicants. His competitors’ rates are in triple digits.

Given the high unemployment rate today, auto mechanics and technicians are fortunate to have a low 4.3 percent unemployment rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Based on definitions by leading economists, that equates to nearly full employment. Automotive mechanics and technicians will be one of the fastest growing occupations over the next 10 years.

One advantage to gaining an education as an automotive or truck technician from a reputable college or trade school is almost 100 percent placement after graduation. Another is that these jobs will never be outsourced overseas.

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