High-tech cars make pool of me­chan­ics smaller


We spend a lot of time ques­tion­ing where tech­nol­ogy is headed in the au­to­mo­tive in­dus­try as it con­cerns those who make and buy the ve­hi­cles, but what about the im­pact it has on those who main­tain them?

With the em­pha­sis shift­ing more and more to com­put­er­ized ve­hi­cles and di­ag­nos­tics, how is this af­fect­ing stu­dents who were tra­di­tion­ally, per­haps, less aca­dem­i­cally in­clined?

We al­ways heard the “head to the trades” line for the kids who were flunk­ing tra­di­tional core education, but those skills are now vi­tal in this in­dus­try.

For both deal­er­ships and independent garages, it’s get­ting more dif­fi­cult to find qual­i­fied tech­ni­cians, as se­nior me­chan­ics head into re­tire­ment at the same time the au­to­mo­tive in­dus­try cre­ates a need not just for bod­ies to work the tools, but for minds ca­pa­ble of han­dling the tech. How do we bridge this rapidly ex­pand­ing chasm? Where will shops find skilled tech­ni­cians?

Alan McClel­land is the dean of the School of Trans­porta­tion at Centennial Col­lege in On­tario. He started out on the tools him­self, and there is per­haps no­body who bet­ter un­der­stands both sides of the equa­tion as it moves for­ward at in­creas­ing speeds.

“We’ve seen a huge shift over the past 10 to 15 years,” he says.

“Once, a shop had a lot of rou­tine work that could be per­formed by rote, leav­ing the spe­cialty work, the tougher di­ag­nos­tics, to those with more ad­vanced abil­i­ties. That rou­tine work is shrink­ing, and fewer tech­ni­cians are go­ing to be able to re­main pro­duc­tive with­out ad­vanced train­ing.”

That train­ing en­com­passes an ever-grow­ing field of study, some of it largely un­heard of, or at least un­con­tem­plated, even a gen­er­a­tion ago. Things once con­sid­ered soft skills — com­mu­ni­ca­tion, team­work, crit­i­cal think­ing, prob­lem solv­ing, and adapt­abil­ity — have surged to the fore.

Centennial Col­lege works closely with the au­to­mo­tive in­dus­try, of­fer­ing pro­grams staked by most of the ma­jor man­u­fac­tur­ers.

To stay cut­ting edge, they have Sec­tor Ad­vi­sory Boards in­volv­ing all as­pects of trans­porta­tion. Grad­u­at­ing stu­dents who are job-ready is es­sen­tial to the col­lege’s suc­cess, and this time of year is cru­cial to co-or­di­nat­ing the ef­forts of what is be­ing taught and how it will be ap­plied.

At a re­cent meet­ing, a gov­ern­ment re­la­tions rep­re­sen­ta­tive from Gen­eral Mo­tors ad­mit­ted to McClel­land the chal­lenges of fig­ur­ing out what the in­dus­try needs to have taught when it’s chang­ing so rapidly.

“We re­al­ize the act of learn­ing is as im­por­tant as the learn­ing,” McClel­land. “To be job-ready, they need an in­creas­ing suite of skills.”

Me­chanic and Centennial pro­fes­sor Chris Muir agrees. He still strad­dles both worlds, and has been im­mersed in what he calls the tur­bu­lent time start­ing in 1995 as the in­dus­try moved away from car­bu­re­tors to fuel-in­jected sys­tems.

“On-board di­ag­nos­tics changed ev­ery­thing. We need tech­ni­cians who are com­puter-savvy but are also great on the tools. You have to love it, you do. The chal­lenges and stresses are in­creas­ing, but if you want it, it’s a fas­ci­nat­ing time to be com­ing into this.”

Like most ap­pren­tice pro­grams, the early years are for weed­ing out the weak. You will be tested.

Is it pos­si­ble, or even suit­able, to train a kid who has pure tool savvy to “get” the com­puter di­ag­nos­tic part of the in­dus­try? Or to teach a kid who is a com­puter ge­nius how to work the tools? McClel­land notes an in­crease in univer­sity grad­u­ates who are en­ter­ing Centennial pro­grams with a great aca­demic back­ground in the STEM sub­jects (science, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math), an­other rea­son to sup­port your chil­dren in stay­ing with these ar­eas in the younger grades.

Much of our fu­ture skilled work will need these pro­grams, in­clud­ing many of the vo­ca­tional ones that were once con­sid­ered a safe haven for stu­dents look­ing for ways to get these core sub­jects.

McClel­land is blunt about ideal stu­dents. Those who pos­sess bet­ter aca­demic readi­ness rise faster and have more flex­i­bil­ity in the work world. “There is a dire short­age,” he says. His mes­sage is echoed in my dis­cus­sions with sev­eral independent shops and two deal­er­ships.

Find­ing a well-qual­i­fied tech­ni­cian is in­deed get­ting very dif­fi­cult. On the flip side, be­ing that well-qual­i­fied tech­ni­cian means hav­ing many, many op­tions.

Centennial Col­lege in On­tario works closely with the au­to­mo­tive in­dus­try to en­sure its grad­u­ates have the right skills to work in the in­dus­try.

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