Car Culture: Repair industry need techies
What if high school graduation is looming for you or someone in your household, but the prospect of another four years in classrooms doesn’t appeal.
Graduating seniors or change-minded adults with a fondness or cars and an itch to learn a new skill might want to look into the automotive service and collision-repair programs at many community colleges around Michigan.
Demand for auto mechanics is expected to remain steady over the next decade, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. And while the median income for auto service technicians is somewhat modest at about $38,000 a year, mechanics who specialize in diesel engines or buses can boost that by 50 percent or more, according to BLS figures. Michigan and surrounding states have some of the highest employment figures for specialty mechanics, too.
As you might expect, the service programs require individual courses in automotive systems like brakes, transmission and engines. But the curriculum has evolved along with the training; today’s mechanics might use a laptop more often than a wrench to diagnose and fix.
“These days we are looking at automated and connected vehicles,” said Jennifer Seger, associate dean in charge of the automotive service program at Macomb Community College. So in addition to traditional under-the-hood repairs, automotive repair workers these days “have to learn about software, sensors, cameras and electronics that previous mechanics did not,” she said. “Dealers love getting young technicians who are fluent in technology.”
Autonomous vehicles are going to add another dimension to traditional auto repair training, and now is an opportunity to get in on the ground floor.
Indeed, on April 28 Macomb Community College’s Center for Advanced Automotive Technology is holding a half-day conference on the effect of driverless vehicles and other new technology on future workforce needs. Admission is free and the public is welcome to the talks and discussions, scheduled for 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. For more information, visit http://autocaat.org/About_CAAT/CAAT_Conference/
Women, while still very underrepresented, are showing more interest, Seger said, noting that some top award winners from MCC’s student roster are female. And via trade associations like Women in Auto Care, they are making themselves heard more throughout the industry. Women in Auto Care also awards hefty scholarships each year to female applicants to auto repair program.
A two-year degree and mechanic’s license can open the door to myriad careers, from self-employment in a repair shop to teaching to working for parts makers and distributors. When investigating programs, check to see if graduates can move on to four-year schools offering degrees in related management fields, just to keep your options open.
So how much will it cost? The average annual tuition at a Michigan community college in 2016 was $5,559, according to CollegeCal.org, an informational website that uses data reported to the federal Department of Education.
The range is great; some schools charge less than $2,500 a year for in-district students; elsewhere costs top $7,000. At the CollegeCalc site you can click on specific colleges for more info about fees and other expenses, as well as financial aid ideas.
The programs are flexible for those who are changing occupations or need time to work for a living, Seger noted. Of MCC’s 300-plus auto service students each year, many are part-time. Also, Macomb and other colleges have co-op arrangements where students rotate between schoolwork and paid on-the-job training.
Macomb Community College, for example, partners with General Motors’ Automotive Service Educational Program; Ford has a similar initiative called Automotive Student Service Educational Training. It’s a win-win for students and for the auto companies, who want to ensure a steady stream of new technicians to their dealers’ service bays.
There’s a lot to be said for learning a portable trade in those early adulthood years. Developing a respected, marketable, hands-on skill by one’s early 20s — whether it’s the start of a lifelong career or a bridge to other opportunities — is a savvy and practical thing to do. And most trades can’t be outsourced to call centers or far-away telecommuters: I’ve yet to have my hair cut, faucet replaced or brakes redone by someone on the other end of a phone line.
Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via Melissa@MelissaPreddy.com