WHITESTONE, NY — The Greater New York Automobile Dealers Assn.'s Center for Automotive Education and Training is stepping up its mission to become the Princeton of automotive-technician education.

Conceived about 12 years ago to address a shortage of auto technicians, the center recently observed the fifth anniversary of its opening. Many members of its biggest class to date attended the celebration. So did some graduates.

The association leases space at its center to the Lincoln Technical Institute, the educational facility that actually runs the automotive-technician training program. Lincoln already has graduated 1,500 people into well-paying jobs in the car servicing sector. Lincoln currently has 700 students enrolled in its 13-month course.

If past experience holds up, some 80% of the current students will graduate and go on to jobs servicing and maintaining cars in the metro New York region. However, an association spokesman says that some graduates wind up with jobs out of state, and even in the aviation industry.

About 45% of the 1,500 graduates now work as technicians for local franchised dealers.

Others work for independent shops and chains, says Karen Lastique, Lincoln's director of education. She predicts the current class will find jobs at area shops paying nearly $30,000 annually to start.

“Our first graduates from the class of 2006 earn up to $70,000 per year,” Lastique says. Twenty franchised dealers are the top employers of the center's graduates, including domestic and import brands.

GNYADA purchased the land for the center well before it broke ground for the facility.

“There was no one person who pushed the project,” says association President Mark Schienberg, although many members credit him as being the driving force.

“It was the entire dealer body who authorized spending their funds,” he says. “The support we got from our members was overwhelming.”

State and local government assistance was sought and secured. Total investment was $28 million to erect the 90,000-sq.-ft. (8,361-sq.-m) facility on a 7-acre (2.8-ha) site. Lincoln occupies more than half the space.

The facility also has classrooms, meeting rooms and an atrium that serves as an auditorium for various events, seminars and receptions.

GNYADA expected to run a loss on the center for up to seven years, Schienberg says. But the investment was paid off in a mere three years. Now the center pays for itself.

Lincoln personnel run the school with a lot of oversight from GNYADA. The association continues to oversee where the program is going and that it is fulfilling the needs of the dealer members.

Lincoln, a for-profit corporation, runs 43 such schools in 17 states. It rents space at the Whitestone campus for its classes.

“Our aim with the building's design was to update the notion of what an automotive education facility should be,” says Schienberg. The facility demonstrates how committed the automotive (retail) industry is to maintain a skilled and professional (service) workforce.

He views the center as vital to the future success of the industry. Auto retail sources estimate there is a current shortfall of about 60,000 technicians in the service sector.

It is essential to train new auto technicians, especially as more alternative-fuel vehicles, such as electric cars, make the scene.

The school offers students hands-on training from master-certified instructors.

An auto bay with 12 lifts accommodates cars donated by various auto makers for the students work on. The Snap-On tool company donated $2 million in tools for the students to use.

There also are computer-equipped classrooms and Web-tech classrooms for additional instruction.

The curriculum includes instruction in steering and suspensions, brakes, engine performance and advanced engines, transmissions (both automatic and manual), air conditioning, electrical systems and fuels and emissions. There's also instruction in service shop procedures and management.

Tuition for the Whitestone course is about $29,000, Lastique says. There are six scholarships awarded annually. Some students also can avail themselves of federal loans.

GNYADA sponsors an annual golf outing to raise money for scholarships. The last golf bash raised some $50,000.

Nico Mitchell, who participated in this year's Westchester/Rockland (NY) Regional Automotive Technology Competition, representing Mount Vernon High School, won a $1,500 scholarship to defray his tuition at the Lincoln school. He's maintaining a 3.95 GPA.

Current students include a retired Marine attending on the GI Bill. The student body also has recent high-school graduates, as well as older people seeking career changing instructions. Many older students brought their spouses and children to the anniversary bash.

Also at the fifth-anniversary celebration was Guillermo Larregui, a former New York City police sergeant who graduated from the Lincoln course and currently is a technician for a franchised dealer in the New York metro area.

In addition to the ongoing Lincoln educational program, GNYADA sponsors nearly 100 seminars and workshops annually at its center for local dealership technicians and other personnel.

There are 30 classifications of job training, including service, management, sales, billing and bookkeeping.

Toyota Motor Corp. rents space at the facility to train dealer technicians on a year-round basis. Its hybrid-vehicle training program is very popular. Other auto manufacturers use the center on an ad hoc basis to train technicians in the engineering innovations of new models when they are introduced.

Schienberg says the center makes an important contribution to the association's 650 franchised dealerships that sell more than 700,000 cars annually.

Supplying trained personnel to member service departments helps to address the significant shortage of trained technicians to work at dealerships. Many potential candidates lack the computer and electronics knowledge vital to work on today's latest car models, he says.

But the bustling Queens center is proving to be a winning proposition for the area car retailers.

They couldn't have known five years ago that the auto industry would find itself mired in a tremendous recession and that unemployment would hover at nearly 10%.

The center can't cure the economy all by itself, but in a significant way it readies a stream of young people for a career in modern vehicle technology and a life of middle-income prosperity.