Vocational schools are gearing up to train future auto technicians who will replace those who are retiring or just plain leaving the field.

Several educational initiatives are underway. Many of them involve joint participation from dealers, automakers and schools.

For instance, Universal Technical Institute Inc., a career college with several locations across the U.S., is working with Ford Motor Co. to launch a new 54-week training program.

Meanwhile, Ford is contributing $340,000 to set up auto technician training facilities at vocational high schools in Chicago.

John C. White, chairman of Universal Technical Institute, says the facility supplies the market with 4,200 new technicians each year.

But more than 15,000 trained tech-nicians are retiring annually, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's contributed to a current shortage of 60,000 trained auto technicians.

Mr. White says there is a high attrition rate - about 9% or 10% annually - within the aging 700,000-plus body of technicians in the U.S. That means that the industry needs to hire about 70,000 new auto technicians each year.

It's not just a retirement issue.

Explains Mr. White, "As cars get more and more technical, there are certain individuals who can't or don't choose to keep up with that technology, so they drop out of the industry."

He says manufacturers are building more sophisticated diagnostic equipment to offset the need for a lot of skilled technicians.

"But still it takes a pretty smart person to learn that diagnostic equipment," he says. "You still have to know how to operate equipment, read that equipment, and ultimately perform the repair."

"All the figures come out and say you make a lot more money if you go to college. Well, what they forget to say is that it's not really college, it's post-secondary education, and that includes technical training."

Ford Accelerated Credentialed Training (FACT) the new program that provides UTI students with nine weeks of specific training in Ford Motor Co. vehicles in addition to 45 weeks of overall training.

Ford says its dealerships need 2,000 new technicians annually. The FACT program is expected to supply several hundred of them.

Mr. White says Ford approached UTI with the proposal. Ford recently instituted policies that will require, over the next five years, that the company accredit technicians who do warranty work. While Ford is confident that it could educate its current dealer technicians, the company needed a way to ensure that new hires would be ready to do warranty work.

To help dealers gain an edge on attracting new graduates, UTI set up the Tuition Reimbursement Incentive Partnership (TRIP), in which companies agree to pay back students' loans. Says Mr. White, "Through TRIP, we're heightening the dealers' participation in the students' education."

UTI also has graduate programs for technicians who want to work for BMW AG and Mercedes-Benz dealerships. The institute trains about 300 technicians annually for those two luxury brands. UTI is also in the process of forming courses for Jaguar, Volkswagen and Porsche.

"UTI is the only institution in the country, public or private, that has these types of relationships with the manu-facturers," says Mr. White.

Bob Clark is manager of industrial relations at the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE). He says that while its primary concern is to provide voluntary certification, ASE takes a keen interest in the technician shortage. This is because as demand for technicians grows, shops are willing to take less qualified mechanics, and this somewhat undermines the importance of ASE testing.

"Technicians must re-certify every five years to maintain their certification, so of course that supports and encourages on-going education," he says.

Mr. Clark suggests that testing and continuing education may help stem the attrition of technicians who might be intimidated by increasing complexity in vehicle technology.

Another Ford initiative is to set up auto tech training facilities at three Chicago vocational schools.

"This is a winning formula for everyone involved, including Ford, our dealers, the Chicago school district and students," says Ron Goldsberry, Ford's vice president of global service business strategy. "Not only do these schools get state-of-the-art Ford diagnostic equipment and tools that students can use for training, our Chicagoland Ford and Lincoln Mercury dealers get a stream of well-trained prospective employees to meet the demand for entry-level service technicians."

This school year, the three technical training facilities, modeled after "Quick Lane" service centers at Ford and Lincoln Mercury dealerships, open at Prosser, Farragut and Curie High Schools.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas says, "The Ford 'Quick Lane' program looks nothing like the old auto shop programs of a generation ago."

High school juniors and seniors who enroll in the automotive training courses will be taught using a vehicle maintenance and light repair curriculum developed by Ford and delivered by Ford-trained Chicago vocational teachers.

During the two-year program, students will be trained in a simulated quick-repair classroom environment, being taught such things as the repair of brake, electrical, suspension and climate control systems, as well as basic maintenance like oil changes.

As part of the program, participating Ford and Lincoln Mercury dealerships will reinforce classroom curriculum through on-site job shadowing and paid co-op work programs.

After training, graduates will have the opportunity to go to work at a dealership as a maintenance and light repair technician. Graduates can continue their education while on the job to become fully-certified Ford service techs, so as to eventually be able to do high-level diagnosis and repair.

Ford provided $140,000 to the three schools for tools, diagnostic equipment, facility planning, curriculum development and training for the teachers. In addition, Ford is donating to the three schools a total of ten vehicles, valued at more than $200,000, so students can practice diagnosis and repair.

Along with repairs, teachers are trained to instruct students on the "Quick Lane" process and methodology. "Quick Lane" is a new service concept being imple-mented at Ford and Lincoln Mercury dealerships across America.

A "Quick Lane" offers fast, no- app-ointment service and maintenance, while the customer waits. The training facility at each Chicago school is designed to look like a "Quick Lane," right down to the logos on the wall and the write-up desk.

Ford also is sponsoring two-year scholarships to Triton College in Chicago, Parkland College in Champaign and the Milwaukee Area Technical College in Wisconsin. Each year, the top student in the technical training program at each of the three high schools will receive a full scholarship in automotive science to one of these colleges.

These colleges are part of the Ford Automotive Student Service Educational Training program.

It's a two-year curriculum during which students alternate between classroom studies and work at their sponsoring dealerships. Courses range from mathematics and physics to computer studies and critical thinking, in addition to automotive subjects specific to Ford products. Students who complete the program can receive an associate's degree in automotive technology.