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May 2008
Driven by Technology
By Janet Kropinak

     There was a time when the requirements for auto technicians were familiarity with engines, brakes and fluids coupled with a strong back and affection for getting dirty. But those days are long gone.

     As automobile complexity continues to increase with the increasing use of technology, those who are responsible for their repair and upkeep must evolve. The cars of today still burn gasoline, but engine control and monitoring has been taken over by electronics.

     Advanced computer systems and sensors have replaced the role of the carburetor. Computerized control has helped to make cars more efficient, but when something goes wrong there can be many more causes. In order to diagnose problems, a technician must now know and understand what the automobile’s computers are seeing and doing.

     The good news is that with the aid of computer diagnostic systems technicians can extract the information they need right from the car, analyze it, and pinpoint problems without turning a wrench.

     Today’s technicians must not only possess high computer proficiency but also a dedication to ongoing education and training. To help meet these demands, Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) and Hendrick Automotive Group have partnered together to find and train a new generation of technicians.


Repairing the Void

     According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are 837,000 automotive technicians employed in the U.S., with an estimated shortage of nearly 60,000 trained technicians. BLS studies show labor needs are expected to increase by 10 to 20 percent by 2010.

     With work force demands increasing at such rapid speed, CPCC’s Transport Systems Technology Division is working hard to prepare its students to work in one of the estimated 120,000 new jobs being created over the next few years.

     Meeting these demands was made more attainable in 2007 with the opening of the Joe Hendrick Center for Automotive Technology on the Levine campus in Matthews. The facility serves technicians who are seeking updated technical skills through contract training and corporate and continuing education classes, as well as those who are looking to become technicians through curriculum programs.

     The 34,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility—funded by a $1 million gift from the Hendrick Automotive Group in honor of Joe Hendrick, father of car dealer and NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick—was designed to meet the needs of students, dealers and the motoring public.

     Additionally, Hendrick donated $100,000 of new equipment and furnishings for the facility, including an engine and etched glass timeline for the lobby showing his late father’s contribution to both the racing and the automotive industry.

     “It was obvious to everyone who knew my father that he had a love of cars and a great desire to help others, especially young folks, reach their true potential. He would be so humbled to know that his name is associated with an institution that honors both of those passions,” comments Rick Hendrick.

     “The Joe Hendrick Center for Automotive Technology at CPCC is all about creating opportunities in our industry and region. Together, everyone in this community—from the manufacturers and auto dealers to our leadership in government—has truly stepped up to build a world-class facility,” continues Hendrick.

     The facility is home to the College Automotive Systems partnerships with BMW, Toyota and GM and has capacity for 19 vehicle bays and 31 manufacturer-provided training vehicles. Eighty computers and six labs ensure that diagnostic training meets and exceeds industry standards.

     The educational focus of the Center is electrical training, which has become more essential in recent years, especially considering the current interest in hybrid models. As cars become more dependent on computer technology, having a solid foundation and understanding of these intricacies is crucial for successful entrance into the industry.

     Laurie Walker, CPCC Transport Systems Division director, credits the new facility and its offerings to helping the program attract the right kind of students and also in allowing them to attract high school students to the program. “It is so important to peak the interest of high school students, especially high school graduates, and this facility is making that job a lot easier for us,” she notes.

     “Our dream for this building is to be one of the top centers for automotive electrical training in the country,” Walker continues. “We have more electrical training simulators than any other school across the country. We are truly state-of-the-art.”


Fine-Tuned Education

     Walking through the Center, it is impossible not to notice the immaculate hallways and training areas. Grease stains, rusted tools and men in jumpsuits have been replaced with computer modules, electrical simulators and professional technicians.

     Students first become familiar with the simulators and the stages of development before working on the car itself. When the students have an understanding of the underlying electrical theory they are able to take that practical knowledge to the “classroom” where they work on cars donated by program sponsors.

     Walker admits that the complexities of new car models can add more work for the technicians but the Center encourages students to look at this as an opportunity to gain more in-depth knowledge. “Cars today are really computers on wheels,” she comments. “You have to learn to outthink them before you try and fix them,” she comments.

     CPCC has partnered with BMW, Toyota and GM to offer two-year degrees that combine curriculum and manufacturer training. At the core of these programs is the ASE certification, the mark of excellence in automotive repair, through the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation.

     The Center has developed excellent relationships with the automobile manufacturers, and because of that, it is able to receive special tools, diagnostic equipment and training updates directly from the factories to better aid in educating the students.

     “The education of automotive technicians serves everyone—the technician, the dealer and the customer,” according to Ken Collins, program chair for the Transport Systems department. “As cars become more complex, it requires more knowledge to fix them. If the technician has the appropriate knowledge, he can fix the customer’s car quicker and more completely. That education increases the technician’s ability to make more income for himself and for the dealership or repair shop. There’s really no way to get that knowledge other than the ASE-certified educational programs like the one we have here at CPCC.”

     In addition to curriculum training, CPCC provides BMW dealerships with manufacturer-trained interns. Toyota and Lexus dealerships also offer the Toyota Technical Education Network (T-TEN), where T-Ten students alternate semesters between learning hands-on repair skills at CPCC and working in dealerships. The GM program also encompasses service technician training.

     The Center is set up in the same configuration and with the same state-of-the-art equipment that is found in most auto dealerships today. The manufacturer programs are set up to be 2-year full-time schedules, with co-op training time built into the schedule. Each manufacturer program is set up differently depending on their preference, but each program builds dealer training in to their curriculum. This training is not only giving students the opportunity to apply their teaching but also helping them forge relationships with local dealers where many will return as employees upon completion of their respective programs.

     Additional opportunities available through the Center include training in North Carolina Automotive Safety and Emissions Inspection courses, Independent Auto Dealers certification, and customized electrical and Hybrid courses.

     For students who enroll at the Center but aren’t yet sure which manufacturer they would like to join, there is the general auto program which trains students to work at non-specific dealers.

     “We also have a good relationship with Sonic Automotive as well as other local dealers”, says Walker. “We have 13 students at local Sonic dealers and hope this number continues to increase.”

     Currently, there are 80 full-time students attending curriculum program classes and the numbers are rising each semester. The College estimates that it trained over 1,000 automotive inspectors in 2007.


Speeding Forward

     Since joining CPCC in 1996 Walker been an active participant in the Center’s growth and her position within the Transport Systems division has her positioned to speak about its success.

     When asked what her favorite thing about the program is, Walker is quick to answer: “It works. I’ve seen it. Everybody wins; the industry, the dealers and the students.”

     She is also equally enthusiastic about future growth of the Transport Systems program.   
     “This program is invaluable in terms of its impact on the school as well as region and the industry,” Walker says.

     Wayne Simpson, director of fixed operations for Hendrick Automotive Group echoes Walker’s sentiments: “With the presence of the Joe Hendrick Center, and through efforts at the dealership level and their involvement in their respective communities, we are reaching young people with the message that the automobile repair industry is a growing and rewarding career. The demand for trained technicians has never been greater and is not expected to diminish.”

     Future goals for the Center include further expansions to the facility as well as bringing on another manufacturer program. Walker would also like to see an expansion to the BMW program where they would train technicians as well as curriculum training. She expects to see continued steady growth within the GM and Toyota programs as well.

     Another coming attraction to the Center is the Hendrick Auto Mall, currently in the planning stages, which will feature multiple dealerships to be built near the Levine campus. The mall will work in conjunction with Automotive Youth Educational Systems (AYES), a partnership among automotive manufacturers, dealers, and selected high schools and tech prep schools. The AYES program will serve as another attraction for high school students to the Center.

     Walker takes a moment to acknowledge the ongoing support of Hendrick Automotive Group: “Hendrick has been, by far, the best supporter of the program—in terms of recruiting, hiring, scholarships and awards. They are truly great promoters of education.”

     Walker also credits the program’s advisory board for their contribution. “Our advisory board has been crucial for us. It is imperative to have industry involvement; without it, we aren’t relevant. I am so proud to say that everyone involved in this program is dedicated to its success and growth.”

    Nearly all CPCC graduates move from their co-op training to become full-time technicians in the dealerships where they trained. With the current industry demands, Walker is confident this job security will continue to draw in students.

     Although Walker seems to have nothing but praise for the program, she does note one area where she sees room for improvement: recruiting females to the program. “As the jobs become more technical and less physical, I think we are going to begin to see a rise in those numbers,” she says optimistically.

     “The field is becoming more sophisticated with computerized and digital equipment; we’ve really seen a shift to a more professional status. I think we are going to continue to break the stereotypes of the job of the auto technician.”

     The job description of the auto technician has evolved by leaps and bounds over the past 10 years but this is only the beginning. With the increasing numbers of hybrids and the development of fully electric as well as hydrogen-powered vehicles, education and training in this field is absolutely necessary. CPCC is committed to ensuring tomorrow’s work force has the knowledge and tools to keep up with the changing automobile.


Janet Kropinak is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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