New breed of automotive technicians set sights on advanced degrees, top jobs

New breed of automotive technicians set sights on advanced degrees, top jobs
Joel Stashenko
The Business Review

Matt Bushnell is the prototype of what the automobile industry is seeking in a new generation of people who will service and repair vehicles.

“We are not looking for mechanics anymore,” said Deborah Landau Dorman, president of the Eastern New York Coalition of Automobile Retailers. “It is not a question of being handy with a wrench. It is a question of being really good with diagnostics. It is a question of being really good with computers. You have to be able to read and write and do math.”

And when the trouble-shooting is done, the technicians–that is now the preferred term–must also possess the traditional mechanical abilities to fix the problems they detect.

That the 19-year-old Bushnell will acquire the necessary skills is not in question. In April 2004, he and another automotive technology student at Capital Region BOCES, Todd Clark, won the National Automotive Technology Competition in New York City.

The pair beat out 38 other teams from as far away as Los Angeles in the automobile diagnostic and repair competition at the Jacob Javits Convention Center.

Bushnell and Pratt won full scholarships to two-year college automotive programs, new Pontiac Vibes worth $18,000 they will each get when they complete their degrees, and tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of tools and other equipment. In all, they claimed $300,000 in prizes.

Big plans
Bushnell, from Niskayuna, is starting his second year in Hudson Valley Community College’s automotive technologies program. Clark, from Delanson, is pursuing his automotive degree at the Universal Technical Institute in Charlotte, N.C.

Bushnell said his training will not stop with the basic automotive program at HVCC. Already at work repairing cars at Albany Dodge, Bushnell is specializing at HVCC in DaimlerChrysler vehicles and has his sights on higher degrees and other possibilities within the automotive industry.

“I am going to work at Albany Dodge [after 2006] for a year and then I think I want to go for an automotive engineering degree” at a four-year college, he said. “I want to work for Chrysler higher up, in the research and development part of the operation.”

Bushnell’s career path is typical of what it takes to become a master automobile mechanic in an age of ever-more-sophisticated and expensive vehicles.

Most technicians have associate’s degrees and most specialize in one make of vehicle, said Rich Bellizzi, an automotive technology instructor at Capital Region BOCES. Bellizzi helped coach Bushnell and Clark in the months preceding their victory in the National Automotive Technology Competition, an event that Bellizzi called the “pinnacle” of his 23-year teaching career.

Technicians must also receive frequent training to keep up with the changing engineering and equipping of vehicles. Some models may have as many as 70 on-board computers.

Pay levels rev up
With the best-qualified technicians making salaries in the mid-$50,000 range and up, Bellizzi said pay for master automotive mechanics has increased. But he said pay levels should be higher, considering all the skills good mechanics must have.

“I think the automotive business is looked down [on] by the general public as pretty much a grease-monkey type job where, in fact, it takes highly technical skills and training,” he said. “The influx of computers has made it a lot more complicated.”

Dorman said the auto industry is trying to fight the perception that all high schoolers will find fulfillment with traditional liberal arts college educations. The attitude has cost the industry technicians and other mechanically inclined people who have gone into other vocations.

“These are kids who are taking apart engines in their backyards and putting them back together again,” Dorman said. “Their parents may be thinking they should be an engineer, but all the kid is thinking is, ‘Boy, I love cars.’ It’s hard to get past the parents.”

Officials in the construction trades have also complained that jobs in their industry are going unfilled because of a bias in some households against young people pursing blue-collar trades.

Still, all 260 slots in HVCC’s automotive technology degree program are filled and more students want to get in. Dorman said the Capital Region’s auto dealers would like to see the community college expand the program. Local dealers also support the BOCES programs in the Capital Region that feed students into HVCC’s two-year degree program.

Columbia-Greene Community College in Hudson also offers an associate’s degree in automotive technologies.

Technical demands
Phil White, department chair of automotive, manufacturing and electrical engineering technologies at HVCC, said the advent of commercial hybrid vehicles and of vehicles using alternative fuels has also complicated automotive maintenance.

“Those are all changes in technology that require a different-type technician than would work on cars several years ago,” White said.

The one thing not changing is the demand for qualified technicians.

“If you look in the paper right now there are opportunities everywhere,” Bushnell said. “Help wanted: technicians. There is a shortage. Anybody that wants to do it and they have the right training, they can get a job easily. Everybody’s looking to hire people.”

White said the need for technicians will not ease.

“There are jobs for everybody that graduates; that’s not a problem,” White said. “There are more jobs than there are graduates. The shortage still exists. If anything, it is growing because the baby boomers are retiring.”

jstashenko@bizjournals.com | 518-640-6808

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