When it comes to explaining the rewards of becoming an auto service or other transportation industry technician to the parents of children in middle- and high-school, Tina Smith and TechForce Foundation have this message:
“There are different roads to success, and even though your child doesn’t want to go to a four-year college, it doesn’t mean they’re not ‘good enough’ because they choose to go into a technical career,” said Smith, who ought to know.
Her journey to becoming director of national partnerships at TechForce Foundation started when she was “kinda kicked out” out of a traditional high school and landed in a vocational high school.
Smith went on to complete what was then Chrysler’s apprenticeship program for auto service technicians, which included earning an associate’s degree in automotive technology at a community college and hands-on training at a dealership. The dealership sponsored her through college.
TechForce Foundation is a non-profit 501 (c)(3) organization. Its mission is to reposition the image of the transportation industry technician from “grease monkey” to skilled professional and highlight their earning potential.
It also aims to expose middle- and high-school age students to the profession and when they are old enough, get those who are interested, into and through training. They also seek to get parents and other adults — who might otherwise discourage young people from seeking out the profession — onboard.
More transportation techs needed
Smith describes the transportation industry as including several transportation modes and disciplines such as diesel engines, motorcycles, aviation, marine and collision repair.
Headquartered in Scottsdale, Ariz., the foundation distributes more than $2 million annually in scholarships and grants to students, thanks to donations from corporate sponsors, auto and auction companies, aftermarket service providers, dealerships and others, according to its website.
A shortage of service technicians is a problem that is vexing the transportation industry, including dealerships and auctions.
In January, the National Automobile Dealers Association Foundation, started a “Workforce Initiative” including a consumer facing website, nadafoundation.org, which has videos featuring technicians speaking about what they like about their careers.
“An immediate goal of the initiative — which is gaining financial support from across the entire industry — is to fill OEM technician training programs to capacity,” NADA said in a blog on its website.
The National Auto Auction Association is a sponsor of NADA’s Workforce Initiative.
Citing data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Smith said that from now through 2026 the transportation industry is predicted to need 120,000 new technicians per year, but technical schools are graduating only about 40,000 new technicians a year.
“It’s a very professional career,” said Smith, 43, and who joined the foundation in October 2018.
“A couple of numbers I like to throw out is that on average, nationally, it costs $130,000 to $150,000 for a four-year degree. An education to become a technician is anywhere from $4,000 to $40,000.
Here’s another stat: only 2.4% of professional techs are women, Smith said.
TechForce Foundation is trying to increase those numbers.
Girls work on cars, too
It has recruited Sarah “Bogi” Lateiner, an ASE master technician and a host of reality TV show, “All-Girls Garage,” to serve as an ambassador and role model for girls who love cars and working on them. “All-Girls Garage” is a show about women who rebuild and repair vehicles that airs on MotorTrend Network.
In June, the foundation hosted a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) center at a Barrett-Jackson auction which featured a station where girls and boys were invited to participate in a pit stop challenge where they removed and replaced lug nuts on tires, could check-out a plastic, transparent engine that allowed them to see how its parts operated and got information about the Shell Eco-marathon, a world-wide competition in which teams of high-school and college students design and build energy-efficient vehicles.
Lateiner was there signing autographs; and instructors from a local ommunity college were on hand, too. Barrett-Jackson auctions specialize in classic and antique vehicles.
“Without exposure, they’ll never know,” that the service technician field is a viable career for women, she said.
Smith acknowledges that technician pay, especially for new technicians, can be lower than the national average. Some companies are offering tool bonuses or incentives to help offset the cost of a basic set of tools which can easily range from $1,000 to $1,200 for an auto technician who is just getting started, she said.
Though many auto companies have their own programs to train technicians, Smith said some dealers help by sponsoring promising and/or deserving students from their local communities, and she urges them to continue doing so.
In 1994, the owner of Hamilton-Fairfield Dodge, Jeep, Eagle in Hamliton, Ohio, which is now closed, sponsored Smith’s education at Sinclair Community College, in Dayton, Ohio, during her enrollment in Chrysler’s apprenticeship program.
A self-described “car nut,” Smith loves hot rods and muscle cars. Her first car was a silver and green 1968 Chevy Chevelle Malibu, equipped with a Cherry Bomb exhaust. The car’s two-speed, Powerglide transmission contributed to the exhaust “rumble” when shifted into low gear, she said.
Cherry Bomb is the maker of high performance and loud mufflers and exhausts.
“The noise, the sound associated with the horsepower, the torque, that’s all the sexy side,” she said.
As a child Smith regularly took things apart — the family toaster, her bicycle, a radio — and put them back together and enjoyed helping her father work on the family boat.
“I’d hand him tools, and I liked sticking my fingers in the grease bucket,” she said.
But school was a different story.
The traditional classroom setting that required her to “sit up straight, pay attention, be quiet, didn’t fly for me,” she recalled. “I couldn’t sit still; I was disruptive.”
So at age 15, “for lack of a better term, I kinda got kicked out of that high school,” she said, with a chuckle. “The high school counselor suggested I go to vocational school.”
At the local vocational high school she tried carpentry, machine trade, welding, auto body and graphic design. She liked the classes but didn’t feel passionate about them.
Auto mechanics, a natural fit
But when she got into the auto mechanics program, “it was a natural fit,” she said.
She excelled and after graduating, continued her education at Sinclair Community College.
During the two-year program, Smith spent a month training at the college and the next month at the dealership, paired with a mentor and putting into practice the things she learned the previous month.
After graduating, she worked at the dealership as a technician for two years.
Since then, she held other jobs, such as a dealership service writer, a benchmark technician for a manufacturer of wiring harnesses, and a lead engineering technician, during which she test-drove motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles.
She was groups manager at NGK Spark Plugs, in Wixom, Mich., when in February 2017 she heard TechForce Foundation chief executive officer Jennifer Maher speak at a conference about the importance of nurturing young people who want to become technicians, changing the profession’s image and getting “influencers” such as parents, school counselors, friends and neighbors to uphold that image.
Smith felt as if she was listening to her life story.
“I turned to my friend, who was my mentor, and said, ‘I’m going to work for her one day’,” she recalled.
“Given my background going from high school to voc tech school — it was labeled as a ‘bad kid’ school. But quite honestly, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”