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College grads replace 'grease monkeys' at dealerships

July 29, 2016
The technology in cars becomes more complex each year. A basic compact car comes packed with electronics. Luxury models are rolling communication devices.  Finding the right people to service these vehicles is an ongoing struggle for dealerships.
 
"There is a real shortage of automotive technicians," said Gary Upton, supervisor of the Toyota Express Maintenance Program at Toyota of Orange in Southern California. "This business is getting very technical."
Today’s service tech is far from the grease monkey of days past. Up to 50 computers are in one vehicle, Upton said. Technicians work with scan tools, essentially laptop computers that diagnose vehicle problems.
"Everything is electrical and electronic," said Upton, who started working on Toyotas in 1980.
His dealership partners with Cyprus College, a local community college, to train technicians. Cyprus offers certification in Toyota’s program, Technician Training & Technical Network, or T-TEN.
The program aims to meet the "explosive" need for service techs at Toyota’s 1,500 dealerships, said Rick Lester, technician-development manager at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.
Collaborating schools agree to a rigorous program that includes hands-on training and internships, he said.
At Toyota of Orange, students work in Upton’s Express Maintenance area, doing oil changes, tire rotations and other light maintenance. "We are teaching them good habits," Upton said.
Most of his techs have college degrees at some level, he said. "We promote college education."
Dealer, College Groom Tech Students
Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, has an auto technology program that offers a variety of certifications.  It has been "very beneficial"  for her group’s General Motors franchises, Jenell Ross, president of Bob Ross Auto Group in Dayton, told WardsAuto during the Women in Automotive conference in Orlando in late June.
But the program is focused on domestic brands, and the Bob Ross group also includes a Mercedes-Benz franchise.
Finding qualified technicians "on the Mercedes side has been a little more challenging," said Ross. "We’re having to do more of our own training."
There is a Mercedes technician training center in Chicago. But getting graduates to move to Dayton can be tough, she said. And even if her group does land a graduate, they need more training.
"We have to grow them," said Ross. "That takes time."
In California, where import brands account for 73 percent of the market, local community colleges are training techs to work on those brands. Fletcher Jones Motorcars, a big Mercedes-Benz dealerships in Newport Beach, Calif., partners with nearby Santa Ana College’s automotive technology program.  
"Santa Ana instructors are just fabulous," said Mike Swistak, shop foremen at Fletcher Jones. 
The dealership works with the college to groom its own techs, he said, including having students work in the dealership while they are studying. They rotate through trainers, changing every six months during the two-year college program.
Swistak, 63, has been in the service industry 41 years. Today’s technicians have to be much more computer oriented than in the past, he said.
"They do a lot more electrical diagnosis," he said.
Service techs and tech training programs also must keep up with evolving drivetrain technology. "What used to be advanced is now part of our regular education," said Max Serrano, an auto tech instructor at Santa Ana College.
Rather than create new programs for each new technology, which would require a complex approval process, Santa Ana College adds content to its existing classes, said Serrano.
For example, when hybrids started becoming popular, he added four hours of instruction on regenerative braking. That has expanded to 16 hours.
Dealerships have provided parts that contain new technology for students to work on and a storage unit to keep tools and training materials in.
Some dealerships also offer internships and help students pay for books and tuition. Serrano sees these kinds of partnerships as the best model for tech training going forward. 
 
Just attending manufacturer’s tech training programs is no longer sufficient, he said, stressing the need for college. "The industry has changed so much. Our textbook is one of the highest reading levels on campus." 
 
 

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