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YOUR WHEELS

Nurturing a new breed of car mechanic

Kids who know their way around microchips as well as engine mounts have the advantage in a profession that's gaining in salary and respect.

June 11, 2003|Jeanne Wright | Special to The Times

Computer smart and mechanically savvy, recent Lompoc High School grads Daniel Rutherford and Nick Brooks represent the new breed of auto shop kids.

Today's automotive students are being trained to meet the high demand for mechanics who can diagnose and repair increasingly sophisticated, computerized vehicles.

Experts say that nationwide, there are 33,000 to 60,000 job openings for qualified auto mechanics or technicians.

"What we need today are young, energetic computer whiz kids," says Bob Van Antwerp, Southern California dealer operations manager for Ford Motor Co.

Auto technician salaries can run from $35,000 to $100,000-plus, depending on qualifications and location, says Tony Molla, spokesman for the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, a Leesburg, Va.-based nonprofit organization that certifies technicians.

"We as a nation have had a societal bias" against becoming an auto mechanic, Molla says. Parents often push their children -- even those not cut out for it -- toward college, discouraging them from an automotive career. But as the level of expertise and salaries rise in the profession, that attitude may be changing.

The complex technology in today's vehicles requires that mechanics have good math, science, computer and reading skills, Molla says.

Experts also predict a demand for technicians to repair and service the increasing number of alternative-fuel vehicles on the road.

Rutherford and Brooks, both 18, proved last month that they are among the Southland's best young mechanics when, as a team, they won first place at the annual Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills Competition at the Irwindale Speedway. They were among 15 teams of high school automotive students competing.

The teams' mission was to quickly diagnose and repair 15 identically bugged Mercury Mountaineers. The students flew into action at the sound of a starter gun, and they had 90 minutes to fix their vehicles.

The Lompoc, Calif., team notched a perfect score and earned a trip to Washington, where they will compete this month against teams from across the country for $6 million in scholarships funded by Ford, AAA and other automotive groups. Rutherford and Brooks also were offered scholarships worth $21,000 each to the Universal Technical Institute in Phoenix, an automotive technical school. Rutherford accepted the scholarship and plans to pursue an auto technician career.

Brooks, however, declined. He intends to go to junior college, transfer to Cal State Fresno and study to become a high school automotive instructor.

Winning the scholarship was a dream come true for Rutherford. "My mom was so excited she started screaming. It's a big relief we won't have to pay" for school, he says. Rutherford admits that not all his grades were terrific, though he's done pretty well in math.

"You need a good understanding of electronics, and you need to be able to visualize what you are working on. If you can't visualize how something went together, then you'll never be able to put it back together again," Rutherford says.

For Brooks, taking first place was "surreal." He remembers growing up around cars and helping his dad change the oil when he was 6 years old.

Brooks is good in math, computers and science, and he also likes marine biology, his mother, Kim Blea, said.

Another competitor, Blaine Sandwick, 16, of Sultana High School in Hesperia, says there are "a lot of smart kids" in auto shop classes, though they don't all plan to pursue automotive careers. "It's inviting, but I'm still tossing it around."

The need for trained technicians comes at a time when "many high schools have reduced or eliminated automotive programs due to lack of funds or teachers," says Elaine Beno, spokeswoman for the Automobile Club of Southern California. But students still can pursue automotive careers through technical and junior college programs.

Given the fast-changing technology in modern cars, there always will be a need for sophisticated technicians. Ford's Van Antwerp sized up the crop of high school auto shop students at last month's competition. "Dealerships have a hard time getting good technicians. These students are our future," he says.

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Jeanne Wright responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: jeanrite@aol.com.

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