For 19 years, Jay Knobbe, service director for Bernard Chevrolet, Libertyville, IL has taught automotive technology at a local community college. The extra income is nice and so is the opportunity to observe talent he might one day hire to work in his service department.

Mr. Knobbe is a good instructor. He interacts well with his students. He's hands-on and offers an on-the-job perspective to help students visualize themselves in the real workplace.

Yet, he's frustrated. Only one in 10 of his students will wind up pursuing an automotive technology career. Many, lacking any self-direction and motivation, drop out. Computer careers and other perceived glamour jobs lure others away. Parents and peers with well-entrenched negative opinions of the industry steer still more students from the business.

And Mr. Knobbe is not alone in pointing a finger at high school counselors who seem to discourage bright, analytical and organized students from pursing good-paying opportunities in automotive services.

Now, however, efforts are underway on a national effort to change how students, parents and high school counselors perceive technical careers and the caliber of individual demanded by them in the 21st century.

A business for the bright and educated

Work in the automotive services will probably always be a job where the hands get dirty. But grease monkey aptitude alone no longer cuts it.

“We hope this will improve how high school counselors see collision repair — that it's a lot more than banging out dents. We need bright students.”
Instructor Gary Brink

“In my students I look for the qualities of a diligent worker,” says Rob Behrens, an auto collision repair instructor teaching at Lake County Community College, Grayslake, Il, where Mr. Knobbe teaches engine rebuilding and automotive electronic, brake, fuel and power train systems.

“That means people who enjoy working with their hands,” says Mr. Behrens, body shop manager for Libertyville Auto Body, a subsidiary of Acura of Libertyville. “But they must also have the organizational and disciplinary skills to take something complex apart and reassemble it into a good product when they're done.”

That's part of the new message industry leaders want high school counselors, parents and industry leaders to recognize too.

“We have an obligation to start promoting to high school counselors and everyone what the real opportunities are in this industry,” says Paul Stasiak, president of the Niagara Frontier Auto Dealers Association in Buffalo, NY.

In fact, talented and experienced automotive technicians are much in demand, and typically earn $30,000 to $50,000 annually in metropolitan areas. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that some talented technicians earn $70,000 to $100,000 a year.

That's good money for a career one can get into after only a short training period and without having to first incur a heavy educational expense, Mr. Stasiak notes.

From whence you come …

Mr. Behrens started in the automotive services business 21 years ago as a detailer, working his way to his present position through a succession of progressively more responsible positions at area dealerships and independent body shops.

“I teach partly for the money, but mainly because I'm trying to get more involved in tracking students to employees,” he says.

About 20% of his students make a career in collision repair, and he himself has hired about 10 of his former students over the years to work in his shop.

Mr. Behrens says, “Counselors still tell the brightest students to go to four-year schools, but we're working with them to realize this business requires students to have sophisticated computer knowledge, a good understanding of physics to deal with collision inertia issues, and a knowledge of chemistry to understand and manipulate metals — and there's some art to this too.”

Agreed, says Mark Kuranz, president of the American School Counselor Association, Alexandria, VA and a counselor at J.I. Case High School, Racine, WI.

“I hear the frustration in these people's voices and I share it,” he says. “Society has done a great job of selling the American dream that if you go on to a four-year college you'll be successful, but 60% of the jobs in today's market require technical training, and that's a huge mind shift for the community.”

Bigger guns getting involved

In 1998 in Milwaukee, an ambitious effort involving the Milwaukee Public Schools, the Automobile Dealers Association of Mega Milwaukee (ADAMM) and the Wisconsin Auto & Truck Dealers Association Foundation set off to bolster the automotive technology attendance in secondary schools.

The effort set off with high hopes, lost momentum when some participating auto shops “fell silent,” and now — reinvigorated by new programs — is again moving forward.

“The lack of knowledge of our industry among parents and guidance counselors is very much a detriment,” says ADAMM Education Director Jack Bennett. “Sheer cost is another reason. It's much less expensive to equip a school and its classrooms with computers than it is with automotive equipment.”

A modern body shop classroom recently completed for a southern Illinois high school cost $1.2 million, including equipment, paint booths and the structure itself. One high school technology campus instructor says he gets only $50 of the $80 per student per year from state funds needed for supplies. The rest is donated by area businesses and supplies manufacturers.

“This business requires students to have sophisticated computer knowledge, a good understanding of physics, a knowledge of chemistry — and there's some art to this too.”
Instructor Rob Behrens

Other initiatives such as AYES — Automotive Youth Educational Systems — and the Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair (I-CAR) Education Foundation are helping to bring automotive manufacturers, local dealers and vocational and high schools together to address the perception and training issues.

The AYES experience begins formally in the 11th grade and continues through the 12th. It includes paid on-the-job training at participating dealerships. When the student graduates from high school and has earned an AYES certificate, he or she should be fully qualified as an entry-level technician.

Building a better image

A nonprofit Alexandria, VA group called the Association for Career and Technical Education — in which AYES is involved — and its Business-Education Partnership are spearheading a national multimedia campaign to improve the industry's perception among students, parents, counselors and community business and policy leaders.

Funding is still being sought, says Executive Director Bret Lovejoy.

“Counselors need as much information as possible about the opportunities available for students in vocational and technical training, and our career counseling members are very active in trying to influence the broader counseling community on this,” Mr. Lovejoy says.

He adds, “They've met with some success, but it's a never-ending battle. What has to change is the approach of school districts. Their message is very clear — school district counselors are recognized for the number of students who go on to four-year colleges.”

While he notes that national research numbers have found that students enrolled in vocational and technical programs are not as high achievers academically as others, it's often that reason that 70% of a given high school population doesn't go on to college or drops out after some time.

“They may not be college prep students, but they're the bulk of the students who make up the workforce and we had better not neglect them… or we'll continue to have the shortage of skilled workers we do today,” Mr. Lovejoy says. “It requires the whole community to ask these questions: What about this other 70% who don't go on to college or do but drop out? What do we do for those students to help them in life?”

Making the college connection

Greg Brink is a collision repair instructor for the Lake County High School Technology Campus. It offers a wide-range of technology courses under one roof for area high school vocational programs.

As part of an advisory committee composed of instructors, area shop owners, insurance and manufacturing representatives, he's working to have college-level collision repair technology courses taught at the campus certified by ASE and its National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation.

“We hope this will improve how high school counselors see collision repair — that it's a lot more than banging out dents. We need bright students. It's a good job and counselors don't know that,” he says. “The best way a collision repair shop can help is by being a member of their local school's advisory committee. The more support we have from business the sooner we will be able to change peoples' minds about this industry.”

Counselors are doing a better job at promoting technical career opportunities, says Mr. Kuranz of the American School Counselor Association. But he agrees more can be done. His group is collaborating with community college representatives to develop public relations materials to help school counselors spread the word.

Success still demands hard work

What impact image-building efforts will have on public perception of automotive trades remains to be seen.

As long as secondary educators and counselors are encouraged — and perhaps motivated by job security and pay issues — to graduate their students for four-year college, the pool of available talent for vocational and technical careers will remain small.

That automotive services are no longer the domain of the dunce is obvious to anyone in the business. Today's vehicles require extensive knowledge of sciences, technologies and the right acumen to bring them together to solve complex automotive-related problems.

Moreover, technician-educators like Mssrs. Knobbe, Behrens and Mr. Behren's teaching partner and work colleague, Ben Cizowski, hope to instill their students with as much work philosophy as work skills.

“Everyone wants the glory that puts the new shiny paint job on a car for example, but few recognize that a great finish comes only after hours of boring prep work,” Mr. Cizowski says. “And you have to admit, it's still a dirty job. Not everyone wants to come home, put a Q-Tip into the ear and have it come out the color of the car you painted.”


Jim Leman writes about the automotive retail industry from his home base in Grayslake, IL. He publishes a newsletter for 1946-1949 Plymouth owners.