Big Wheels

Forget Shop Class. Students with a mechanical knack are getting high-tech lessons in repairing today's increasingly complex automobiles.

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When he explains the changing nature of the job market, U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich likes to tell a story about a trip to his neighborhood gas station.

As he pulled up, not an attendant was to be seen. But he didn't need one: All Reich had to do was swipe his credit card through the device attached to the self-serve pump and gas up the car himself. But meandering around to the garage out back, he could see where the new jobs are: highly skilled mechanics trained to repair today's increasingly complex automobiles.

Car dealers, auto manufacturers, and independent repair shops alike are having trouble finding enough qualified mechanics. Nationwide, the automobile industry is facing a shortage of about 60,000 technicians.

To meet that demand, a number of public schools around the country are retooling the traditional shop class into a high-tech automotive-repair workshop.

"The technology has more than evolved; it's escalated at warp speed," says Steven Mull, a teacher at the Berks County Career and Technology Center here. "While automobiles have been around for 90 years, there has been more change in the last five years than the previous 85."

His colleague Lewis N. Davis agrees. "You have to constantly go back to school and retrain, retrain, retrain."

In today's lingo, shop class has become "automotive technology." And the folks who used to be called mechanics are now "automotive technicians.''

And for good reason: In 1975, there was only about $75 worth of electronic equipment in a car; today, the figure is closer to $1,500. Today's models have onboard computers with more computing power than those used to navigate some of the early Apollo space capsules.

Dispelling Stereotypes

Established in 1968, the Berks County center serves 1,850 high school students from the county's 16 school districts. The center has two sites--the west campus here in Leesport and an east campus in nearby Oley, Pa. Leesport is in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country near Reading.

The center offers 34 training programs in fields from culinary arts to commercial photography to construction. The automotive program is one of the jewels in its crown, thanks to the national recognition it has achieved. This spring, it was one of 10 schools to win a U.S. Department of Education Secretary's Award for outstanding vocational-technical programs, and it has received a slew of other national, state, and local awards.

This year, 72 students are enrolled in the automotive program, half on the west campus and half on the east. All of the county's students are required to visit the career center during 8th grade, and many are quickly sold on the program. "I knew I wanted to come here as soon as I walked in the door," declares Tim Lambert, a senior in the automotive program. His two younger brothers already want to follow in his footsteps.

Both the tours and the annual open houses for parents help dispel some of the stereotypes about vocational education.

"There used to be a perception that if you dropped out of school, you could always go work in a garage," says Clyde Hornberger, the center's assistant director. "That's no longer the case." Hornberger tells the visiting 8th graders that not only do automotive students need to finish high school, but many go on to college.

Seven years ago, just one-quarter of the automotive program's graduates went on to higher education, but now close to half do, typically for an associate's degree. In 1994, 77 percent of the graduates were enrolled in college or working in the field within six months after graduation.

The automotive classrooms on the west campus consist of two cavernous workshop areas with garage doors that open onto a back lot. A smaller classroom is sandwiched in between. Near the entrance to the workshops, a sign warns: "Stop! Safety glasses must be worn beyond this point!"

Inside the workshops, two dozen late-model cars are parked. The oldest date from 1988, and there are many newer models, including a 1993 Saturn and a 1995 Dodge Cirrus.

Each year, the center adds three or four vehicles to its fleet. Students win some of them in automotive-skills competitions, and manufacturers donate others.

Over the past three years, the center has invested $25,000 in the latest diagnostic equipment. One such device is a modular engine analyzer, which can detect problems with the ignition and fuel systems through a data link that plugs into a car's on-board computers. A number of desktop computers are also scattered around the room.

"Five years ago, we didn't have one computer," notes Davis, one of two instructors on the west campus. "Now, we have at least eight." He points to two industrial shelving units stacked with thick, well-thumbed repair manuals. Thanks to technology, these cumbersome books are gradually being replaced with manuals on CD-ROM.

Shifting Gears

But the content of the course is changing at least as profoundly as the method for delivering it. "The General Motors repair manual used by mechanics used to be written at an 8th-grade level," Hornberger says. "Now, it's written at grade 14."

Today, Berks County students can choose from one of 10 specialties within the automotive field such as "alignment/suspension technician" and "driveability technician."

The current crop of students is also taking a heavier academic course load than previous generations. All students take at least three years of math and science and four years of English and social studies, and some take additional math and science classes. The students spend half of each school day taking academic courses at their home high school and the rest of the day at the vocational center.

Once at the center, the students have a three-hour block of time to accomplish whatever they need to do. At the beginning of their first year in the program, they share common introductory lessons. But quickly they start working at their own pace. They can tackle new topics as soon as they are ready, first through reading assignments and videotapes, later through software simulations and demonstrations.

For Lambert, the applied nature of the work makes it more fun as well as easier to retain information. "I remember the stuff I learned two years ago because I am using it all the time," the student explains.

Another lure for many students is the chance to participate in a bevy of local, state, and national competitions. One popular contest is the Ford/American Automobile Association Auto Skills National Quality Care Challenge, in which students diagnose and attempt to repair cars that have been deliberately disabled.

Contest winners can bring home significant prizes: The 10 graduating seniors on the west campus have collected $75,000 in college scholarships along with cars for their schools, tools, and trophies.

Finding Jobs

Some graduates of the Berks County program work while they pursue an advanced degree. Jeremy Billman, a 1995 graduate, recently was hired as a service technician at Bayliss Oldsmobile in Reading. He attends college for eight weeks, then works for Bayliss eight weeks, and will repeat this cycle for two years until he completes his associate's degree in automotive technology.

His boss, Clete Marquardt, didn't hesitate to hire Billman right out of high school since he had read in trade journals about all the honors the program has netted. "It's good to look in the paper and see constantly that Career and Tech has all these award-winning students and their instructors are being recognized," the service manager says.

Marquardt also recently hired Kim Hoyer, a 1990 graduate of the program who had been a service adviser for a local Ford dealer for six years. Hoyer serves as a liaison between the customers and the service technicians, deciphering automobile lingo and answering questions. "If the technicians say, 'This car needs to have its mass airflow sensor put on,' she knows what that is, and why it needs it," Marquardt explains.

Straight out of high school, technicians earn as little as $6 or $7 an hour. But after four or five years, they are paid a flat rate for each job, regardless of how long it takes, and can earn as much as $45,000 a year.

Bayliss Oldsmobile employees also receive health insurance and life insurance, paid vacations, profit-sharing and retirement plans, and discounts on new and used cars at the dealership.

Even so, technicians are always looking around for a better deal, Marquardt says. "The grass is always greener," he laments. "My best technicians could walk out of here today and into any GM dealer and get hired that day. There's just that kind of demand."

Another company that has hired many program graduates is Penske Racing Inc. in Reading. In fact, 14 of the company's 70 employees graduated from the Berks County automotive program. One of them, Mark A. Swavely, a member of the class of 1984, landed what race-car enthusiasts might consider a dream job: He assembles the engines of IndyCars at Penske.

Each time an IndyCar is used in a race--about 16 times a year--it is taken apart and rebuilt from top to bottom. Even the chassis is taken apart and given a fresh coat of fire-engine red paint.

On a recent day, there's only one car in the building, a "PC 24" that looks much tinier in life than on television. It's hard to believe this compact vehicle is capable of reaching speeds of 240 miles an hour. The rest of the Penske fleet is already on the way to the inaugural U.S. 500, a race being staged in Michigan on the same day as the 80th annual Indianapolis 500.

Swavely first visited Penske on a field trip with his class from the Berks County center. He marvels at how much the industry has changed since then. The tools of his trade now include complex equipment like the durability dynamometer--a soundproof room with a controlled atmosphere that can simulate racetrack conditions so the staff can test an engine in a 500-mile "race" without ever leaving the building.

The training students receive at the Berks County center helps prepare them for today's auto-repair industry, Swavely says.

"The kids are certainly coming here with much, much more," he says. "Everybody is computer literate when they come here, and that was not the case before."

Vol. 15, Issue 41, Page 54-56

Published in Print: August 7, 1996, as Big Wheels
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