DETROIT — The automotive industry continues in search of qualified auto technicians, says Darryl Hazel, Ford Motor Co. senior vice president and president-customer service.

There are approximately 250 million cars and trucks operating in the U.S., traveling an average 44 miles per day, Hazel says. And while today's sophisticated vehicles last much longer than in the past, greater skills are needed to diagnose and repair them.

The perception of automotive technicians as “grease monkeys” no longer applies, Hazel says, pointing out that to work on today's vehicles a computer is a more valuable tool than a torque wrench.

“To truly be a qualified technician, what you really need to do is understand electrical systems and be able to interact with the vehicle via computer,” Hazel says at an Automotive Press Assn. event here. “That's primarily how diagnosis takes place.”

Another misconception discouraging young people from pursuing careers as auto technicians is the position doesn't pay well. But a top-level master mechanic can earn up to $100,000 a year, Hazel points out. Entry-level techs typically demand between $30,000 and $35,000 a year.

The competition for qualified techs has become fierce among dealerships. In order to retain topnotch technicians, Hazel says he encourages Ford dealers to become an “employer of choice.”

“The facts are some dealers have no problem retaining people whatsoever, and there are others who have an abnormally high turnover rate,” Hazel says. “It often comes down to the sort of relationship a person has in his place of business.”

But even that sometimes isn't enough, because automotive technicians often find there are additional employment opportunities in other high-tech fields, Hazel says.

“In the late '90s and in the early part of 2000, as some of the computer businesses were really ramping up, it wasn't uncommon to lose (technicians) to some household, high-tech sort of organization,” Hazel says.

“That has stabilized to a certain degree.”

Technicians also can be lost to auto maker competitors. Hazel says only a few years ago, another auto maker was offering $200,000 to lure master technicians away from Ford's technical hotline, which is there to help talk dealership technicians through a difficult repair or diagnosis.

Ford supports a number of initiatives aimed at encouraging more people to train for auto technician careers, Hazel says.

That includes the Automotive Service Student Education Training program, or ASSET, a dealership-sponsored program providing students hands-on training at a dealership as they work toward an associate's degree at a community college.

“They are sponsored by dealerships, so most of the time the sponsoring dealer takes them into their employ,” Hazel says of the ASSET program.

Another Ford initiative is FACT, or Ford Accelerated Credential Training program. FACT differs from ASSET in that it is a traditional education program that concentrates exclusively on technician training. Hazel says the auto maker has had success placing FACT graduates in its dealerships.

Ford also co-sponsors a program with the American Automobile Assn. The Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills competition brings together high school students from every state to compete for scholarships to attend post-graduation technical programs.

In this year's competition, two-person teams worked to diagnose a Ford Mustang purposely “bugged” with several technical glitches. Teams that diagnosed the problem first and performed well on a written test in regional competitions made it to the finals at Ford headquarters in Dearborn, MI.

Now in its 13th year, the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills competition has produced a number of skilled automotive technicians, Hazel says.

“This is a system that works, and we're happy to support it. Since 1994, we've had more than 4,500 auto-skills participants go through this and find employment at our dealerships.”

Winners of this year's competition are Bradley J. Bolton and Aaron Clay, seniors at Paris (TX) High School. They took 29 minutes, 34 seconds to accurately diagnose and fix bugs in a Ford Mustang. Michael Schmidt is their instructor.