When Mike Zasadny read the news in a local paper, the LaFontaine auto dealership group’s fixed operations director quickly called Josha Talison, superintendent of schools in Ecorse, MI, a Detroit suburb.
“I’m excited about getting young kids involved in auto-technician careers,” Zasadny tells WardsAuto. “I told him, ‘We want to help. We’re all in.’ I think I shocked him a bit, but he is as passionate about the program as I am.”
He’s referring to Ecorse High School’s Certified Automotive Tech Program. It got a big boost in July when General Motors gave it tools, components and two new Chevrolet Silverado pickup trucks for students to work on.
That, in turn, spurred the Highland, MI-based LaFontaine Automotive Group (No. 51 on the WardsAuto 2021 Megadealer 100) to get involved, too.
It will provide training, tools and mentorships to the Ecorse students.
“The biggest part for us is the mentorship,” Zasadny says. “Our technicians and service managers will go to the school. And we’ll take students to some of our stores so they can see how dealerships operate. We’ve also talked about internships for the seniors.”
And, yes, he says, LaFontaine will scout for prospective auto technicians.
Part of Zasadny’s enthusiasm is that he attended high school in Wyandotte, a city next to Ecorse in Detroit’s Downriver area. Downriver people stick together, he says.
But his colleagues share in the zeal for the LaFontaine-Ecorse alliance.
The opportunity to work with “passionate students looking to enter the automotive field” is an honor, says Kelley LaFontaine, the group’s vice president.
Dealers nationwide participate in various programs to address a chronic shortage of qualified auto technicians.
Part of LaFontaine’s effort is to highlight auto-technician career opportunities for young people, says Max Muncey, the group’s senior manager of corporate communications.
“We want to tell them, ‘Here’s what you can expect to make – up to $100,000 for some master technicians,’” he tells WardsAuto. “We want to show them a career road map. We’re attempting to tackle the auto-tech shortage from all sides. There’s a real excitement within the group about the Ecorse partnership. We want to use it as a blueprint for other programs.”
Superintendent Talison says, “We have a moral calling to change the dynamic of our community, and it will require partnerships and programs like this to drive that transformation.”
Students who complete the Certified Auto Tech Program “will have the skillset, connections and opportunity to immediately get into the workforce, hopefully with LaFontaine Automotive Group,” he says.
“There is a tremendous automotive technician shortage in our industry, and opportunities like this hopefully inspire students to enter into a career in automotive and see the tremendous career growth available to them,” says Dan LaFontaine Jr., a service manager at his family business. “We’ll be pouring our passion and knowledge into these students.”
Zasadny (pictured, left) credits new teacher Grant Dobrzelewski for reaching out to GM to include Ecorse in the automaker’s ongoing project of supporting school auto-technician training programs.
Forty Ecorse High School students will go through the program each year. Half of them are 9th- and 10th-graders, the other half juniors and seniors. Graduation will prepare them for the first level of Automotive Service Excellence certification.
“A young person coming out of a program like Ecorse’s can be a master technician in five years, Zasadny says. But he notes, “The training never stops.”
He says of the Ecorse students, “I’ve been in their shoes. I know what they can do.”
He realized early on that he wanted to make a living fixing cars. At age 16, he began working at an auto repair shop. He joined LaFontaine as a service manager in 1999.
A husband and wife, Michael Sr. and the late Maureen LaFontaine, founded the dealership group in 1980. Son Ryan LaFontaine now heads an organization that includes 46 franchises, 10 collision centers and 27 dealerships across Michigan.
It employs more than 1,800 people and sold 36,277 vehicles last year.
Steve Finlay is a retired WardsAuto senior editor. He can be reached at [email protected].