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State Faces ‘Astronomical’ Shortage of Auto Techs

With automotive technicians approaching retirement age and opportunities for automotive training drying up in the Valley, area insiders in the field are concerned about the industry’s future here. “The average age of mechanics is 51,” said Gary Sornborger, head of the College of the Canyons’ Automotive Service Technology Department. “The shortage is astronomical. We’re 51,000 techs short in California.” The problem of aging technicians is only exacerbated by the fact that there are fewer and fewer places young Valley residents can go to obtain training, area educators say. “Traditionally, we had feeder programs, your ‘spawning groups’ for new people to come in through high school automotive programs, community college programs, trade schools and occupational centers,” said Tom Rosdahl, professor of automotive service and president of the Academic Senate at Pierce College. “In the San Fernando Valley you’ve got a situation where the kids aren’t exposed to automotive training.” Locally, Pierce is “the last bastion of affordable college level and technical automotive instruction,” according to Dennis Washburn, executive director of the Foundation for the school. “We’re one of two colleges in the L.A. Community College District that has a pretty substantial program.” In addition to serving some San Fernando Valley residents, College of the Canyons serves Santa Clarita Valley students in automotive instruction. A handful of Valley high schools also offer automotive training. Al Jimenez, an automotive instructor at North Hollywood High School, applauds Sylmar, San Fernando and Van Nuys high schools for offering comprehensive automotive instruction programs. That said, Jimenez, who, prior to teaching worked as an automotive technician for nine years, acknowledged that such programs have dwindled at the high school level. He said that when automotive teachers retire, schools often decide to simply terminate the automotive programs offered. That the high school students of today have limited exposure to automotive training is a concern of Jimenez. “I honestly think the younger they start in the industry, the more experience they’re going to have,” he said. For his part, Jimenez said that he often refers his most talented students to dealerships for internships or work opportunities. Area students may also take classes at West Valley Occupational Center and North Valley Occupational Center. Rosdahl, however, said that the training offered at those facilities,the representatives of which didn’t return phone messages by press time,isn’t enough to combat the technician shortage. “Their primary goal is to get [students] to be entry-level employable,” he said. “They don’t work towards a degree. You take two classes to get a job.” In contrast, at Pierce the goal is to get students to take a wide range of classes, culminating in a degree or a certificate, according to Rosdahl. “We do have an industrial arts program here at Pierce College,” Washburn said. “It includes automotive technology, machine shop, industrial design. There is welding, things that are related to machine maintenance, automotive and other vehicle and operations maintenance training, as well as customer service.” But that’s not enough, Washburn argued, for more advanced technicians will be needed in the San Fernando Valley of the future. “The industry has all of this new technology to deal with,” he said. Washburn recently applied for funding that would allow the college to offer more advanced training. While local dealers have raised more than $300,000 towards such training, Washburn said, unfortunately, “There’s not enough money in the state community college system to underwrite a new program such as the one we proposed.” Rosdahl said that he believes teaching students how to work with hybrid cars and alternative fuels such as clean diesel, methane and propane is important. “The hybrid cars are the hot things right now,” Rosdahl said. “Every manufacturer has got one out. Toyota is the leader.” While popular among consumers, hybrids can be dangerous for technicians because the batteries they contain have high voltages. As America embraces the green movement, Rosdahl thinks it would also be fitting for Pierce to have a natural gas refueling station. “But that’s not a really common thing,” Rosdahl said. “It’s not near as popular as the hybrid cars.” Sornborger, too, would like to work with hybrids and compressed natural gas. “It’s the only way,” he said. “We are getting torn loose at the pumps.” The automotive program at College of the Canyons is brand new. It has only been in session for a couple of semesters. “The program is really successful,” Sornborger said. “The students love it. We’re building mechanics, technicians.” Sornborger thanks College of the Canyons President Dianne Van Hook for launching the program and supporting his vision for it. “I have cart blanche with this program,” he said. “They’re plowing the money into it. It’s just wonderful.” Sornborger is also grateful for the support of Galpin Motors Vice President Karl Boeckmann. “There’s a growing need for technicians,” Boeckmann explained of his involvement. “That’s through attrition, and, also, because there’s more vehicles on the road. The need for technicians is growing dramatically.” Galpin believes in higher education, Boeckmann stressed. Thus, the dealer has worked with high schools, junior colleges and vocational schools alike with regards to automotive training. “At Pierce, we’ve donated four vehicles through Ford,” Boeckmann said. “We want to do similar things for College of the Canyons, which is just in its infancy right now.” At present, Galpin is working to initiate a College of the Canyons maintenance accreditation certification program through Ford Motor Company. If neither the state government nor the automotive industry heeds the cry from educators about the need for students to have more exposure to advanced automotive training, Sornborger said that there will be consequences. A time will come when a bigwig will go to his car and it won’t start, Sornborger said. He’ll take it to be repaired and realize he has to pay $160 an hour to have the car fixed. When that day arrives, Sornborger said, “I will be tickled pink.”

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