The future's uncertain right now for the people who make cars, but it looks pretty good for people who fix them. That's what KPCC's Brian Watt learned in Pomona at a recent statewide auto repair skills competition for high school students.
PA Announcer: When the gun goes off, you know what to do. If you don't, you don't belong here.
Brian Watt: Ten high schools from Southern California competed to see which young auto mechanics could find and fix the same set of bugs in a Ford Focus the fastest – with the fewest mistakes. The teams stood by the cars in a parking lot at Fairplex in Pomona.
PA Announcer: Three... two... one. (Gun clicks softly, malfunctions). Go! Go! [Gun goes off]
Watt: OK, so the gun needed fixing, too. Each high school's two-man team opened the hood quick. They only had 90 minutes to finish.
George Root: This is like the Olympics. For an automotive teacher, this is us going to the Olympics, and it means that much to these students.
Watt: George Root teaches auto repair at Ontario High. This is the 16th year his students have competed. He's watching seniors Nigel Diaz and Miguel Valeriano check out their car's fuse box.
Root: I've seen them excel from not knowing a whole lot, not having much desire, to where they are today. And they're hitting this car pretty hard. I'm a little concerned right now because the car hasn't started yet.
Watt: Oh, I see.
Root: I feel they may be chasing a bug that we didn't cover.
Watt: Yeah, I have heard a few other cars start.
Root: Correct. And within the first 20 minutes, the goal is to get the car started first so that you don't run the battery down and kill the car because then you're gonna have to replace the battery.
Watt: But after a few more minutes and little more tinkering...
[Sound of car starting]
Watt: The Automobile Club of Southern Calfornia co-sponsors the competition. Coordinator Rick Lalor says the students are the stars, but auto shop teachers like George Root deserve a lot of credit.
Rick Lalor: In a world where a lot of the vocational education programs are going away, these are the guys that are out there on the front lines instilling that love for automotive technology and automobiles in general with these kids. They do a super job.
Watt: Eric Gillanders of Ford – the competition's other sponsor – worries about that fall-off in vocational education.
Eric Gillanders: It's about looking to the future and looking to make sure that we have technicians to replace the ones that are going to be retiring over the next several years. The estimate is about 50 percent of the current techs – automobile technicians – will be retired in the next 10 years. So it's a staggering number as the baby boomers are coming of age.
Watt: Master of Ceremonies Wayne Olson gave the play-by-play and the stats. Dealers might not be selling many cars, but their parts and service departments expect to earn 3 percent more this year than last. Three-quarters of independent mechanics expect more work, too. Oh yeah, the money's good.
Wayne Olson (over PA system): And I'm talking better than six-figure incomes for a good technician. And that's better than a bank teller makes, I can guarantee you.
Watt: George Root says in high school, parents and friends shook their heads at George the auto shop student. Then he became George the well-paid GM auto technician. Now he's Mr. Root, the automotive instructor at the Baldy View Regional Occupation Program. It takes two years to complete his course.
Root: Today, cars are so technical that the kids have to be trained at an earlier age. They have to be smarter than we ever were working back in the '60s and '70s. Because of that, they are paid better.
Watt: With just a few minutes left, George Root's students closed the hood and rode their car over for inspection. The bugs in these Fords were such stumpers that most teams worked until...
[Finish gun fires]
Olson (on PA): End of competition!
Watt: They got the gun fixed. As he waited for the score, Ontario High's Nigel Diaz said he's serious about an auto tech career. His dad's a mechanic, he's interning with a dealer now – and one day, he'd like to run his own shop.
Nigel Diaz: Technology is always coming up and I know everybody needs a car. I know that regardless of how the economy is going, everybody is going to need to car, and cars break, so I'll be there to fix them.
Watt: The competition is happening across the country, so organizers want to keep what's wrong with the cars a secret. I can tell you that in Southern California, the Ontario High techs placed fourth. San Luis Obispo High took first for the third year in a row.