Help wanted in your local auto mechanic's bay

At Universal Technical Institute in Exton, which has become a conduit for vehicle firms in need of qualified mechanics (now called technicians), a hot rod is returned to its bay in a power and performance lab.
At Universal Technical Institute in Exton, which has become a conduit for vehicle firms in need of qualified mechanics (now called technicians), a hot rod is returned to its bay in a power and performance lab. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 12, 2014

In the next year or so, a car or truck dealership somewhere is going to be very happy to see Jillian Lukatchik, now 20, walking in the door.

"You know you are going to be working your butt off," Lukatchik said cheerfully. She's on the road to graduate from the Universal Technical Institute (UTI) in Exton with a specialty in Cummins engines for diesel trucks.

At the Philadelphia Auto Show at the Convention Center, it's all about the bling - the latest models, the latest engineering, the latest automotive loveliness.

In their service departments, dealers are worried - the supply of vehicle mechanics, now known as technicians, can barely keep up with demand.

"If you are an auto technician and you don't have a job, you don't want a job," said Mark Rogers, an automotive consultant with the National Automobile Dealers Association. "Dealers fight each other to take technicians."

It takes two or more months for Pep Boys to fill an opening for a master technician, according to Kathy Frashier, vice president of human resources at Pep Boys.

"We need 270 [new] service technicians every year" in the Philadelphia area, said Kevin Mazzucola, executive director of the Automobile Dealers Association of Greater Philadelphia, the sponsor of the Philadelphia Auto Show.

And, they say, the situation is likely to get worse. Lured by the prospect of college, fewer young people are interested in blue-collar trades.

"People don't look up to auto mechanics," said Christopher D. Gilman, the Atlanta-based North American manager of Porsche Academy Technical Training. "In Europe, a technician is considered a highly skilled trade, and it's respected.

"In America, mechanics are just grease monkeys, who can't do anything else," he said. "Kids would rather work with computers, or something else."

What they don't understand, he said, is that, these days, auto mechanics are computer technicians.

Gilman said Porsche contracts with UTI, which has schools around the nation, to bring on 48 of its top graduates for further training in Porsche or related brands.

The national automotive business that former race car driver Roger Penske started with a Chevrolet dealership in Philadelphia just spent $100,000 to outfit a new classroom at UTI. Penske recruits heavily at UTI and Lincoln Technical Institute.

To prime the pipeline, the regional dealers association will sponsor a contest for high school auto technicians. Winners will get hefty scholarships.

They need them. After 87 weeks of classes, Lukatchik will owe $45,000 - a number swelled by her getting advanced training. A typical bill would be $29,000 for a 51-week auto-tech course.

Lukatchik fell in love with engines when she was modifying suspensions on vehicles for off-road riding in the slag heaps and mountains outside Scranton.

"When I was 18, I moved out, and I was working three jobs just to keep myself afloat," she said.

"There was no way I could go to college, so I thought I'm going to try to take a trade, which I was interested in anyway."

The recession has also been a factor.

Rogers, who, as part of his duties, consults with a group of 20 dealerships, described what happened.

Typically, he said, there are four categories of technicians. The top category, the master technician, has the equivalent of a doctorate degree.

The master technician can earn close to $80,000 a year and diagnose and fix the most complicated problems. Those technicians are beginning to retire. However, because fewer cars are likely to have complicated problems these days, he said, the need for these mechanics has diminished somewhat.

The next two categories - the journeymen technicians - handle most of the work, and competition for these technicians is the most intense, Rogers said.

Through the recession, as people kept cars instead of buying them, dealers' service bays propped up the entire business.

Paid by the repair, not the hour, the journeymen technicians can earn up to $70,000, Rogers said. Their wages depend on how quickly they can complete repairs.

In addition, in some places in the country, these mechanics are being recruited by other industries. Rogers said a van pulled up to one of his dealerships around closing time announcing, "We need mechanics in the oil fields."

The next morning, the dealer had four vacancies, and the mechanics who left had doubled their pay.

These days, car sales are rebounding from the recession.

In 2007, 16.1 million vehicles were sold in the United States. In 2009, that number fell a third, to 10.4 million, and in 2013, at 15.5 million, sales are gaining ground.

"Now there is a lull" in the demand for technicians, Rogers said, because fewer cars are old enough to need complicated repairs, and the newer cars are under warranty.

To keep bays busy, he said, dealers are competing for the lowest level of repair work - oil changes and tire rotations - with Pep Boys and Jiffy Lube.

That increases the demand for a lower-level technician, typically paid $15 to $17 an hour.

These days, technicians spend more time talking to customers, so communication skills matter, said Bob Kessler, president of UTI's Exton campus.

"You've got to want to work with your hands. And you have to be technology-oriented - there are 150 or more computers within the vehicle."


BY THE NUMBERS

270

New service technicians needed every year in Philadelphia area.

$80,000

Salary for a master technician.

$70,000

Salary for a journeyman technician.

$35,000

Salary for a lower-level technician.


jvonbergen@phillynews.com

215-854-2769

@JaneVonBergen

www.inquirer.com/jobbing

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