Seventeen year-old Jonathan Alejo expertly removes the lug nuts from each tire on a 3 Series BMW as he goes over the details of the car's service ticket. After performing an oil change, he rotates the tires and sends the car off for a test drive.
Alejo works in the service center on the fourth floor of the huge BMW of Manhattan dealership on West 57th Street. He's sharp, moves quickly and knows a heck of a lot about cars.
He is part of an elite internship program at the New York dealership that recruits top students from Alfred E. Smith High School in the Bronx who show extreme talent and an interest in a career as an automotive technician. It's a partnership that is mutually beneficial.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 35,000 new automotive technician jobs open up each year. The BMW of Manhattan internship program is modeled after BMW of North American's Service Technician Education Program (STEP), which was created nine years ago to address the severe shortage. Both enlist master technicians to serve as mentors to the young students — a strategy that is crucial to retention and success.
Careers in the automotive service industry today go far beyond the stereotypical notions of the mechanic. Today, they are technicians, and a diagnostic computer is equally important as a wrench.
BMW of Manhattan service manager Philip Demersky says the industry is booming with opportunities for aspiring young people, with the average salary for an entry level technician at more than $30,000. A more advanced BMW STEP grad can earn about $50,000. In large markets like New York, experienced technicians can command six-figures.
“It's a lot harder these days”, says mentor and master technician Bobby Erwin. “It's not like fixing your father's old carburetor. These kids come in with some background, but they need someone to teach them the ropes, teach the basics and explain the ‘why’, not just the ‘how.’ They're really smart, so why not? Everyone deserves a break.”
The internship program begins while students are in 11th grade and runs for 120 days throughout two years — 60 days each summer. Good grades are not the only criteria. Only the most energetic, passionate and driven students who are looking for a career, not a job, are selected.
Alejo fit the bill. He is one of the brightest in his classes and also shined on the service floor, picking up skills he says he never expected to learn.
“BMW is really giving us chances, giving us the opportunity to do something big,” he says.
Another youth who benefited from the program is Jeffery Guido, 18, a graduate of Alfred E. Smith High. While there he participated in the BMW of Manhattan internship program and was hired as a full-time tech in June.
Aside from providing training, BMW of Manhattan provides students that complete the program with their first set of tools worth about $1,200.
After an eye-opening visit to Alfred E. Smith High, BMW of North America CEO Tom Purves took a special interest in the Manhattan dealership's internship program.
BMW of North America recognizes that many youth from similar backgrounds as Alejo's are extremely talented, but lack access to the caliber of training that BMW can provide, says Purves.
“I was extremely impressed with the students,” he says. “After seeing the level of intelligence and confidence they had in their craft, I thought it was important for the industry to pave a path for these young people to further hone their skills. We are not only addressing the industry's need for more skilled technicians, but providing a chance for a better life for some young people.”
As for Alejo, his plan is to go far in his chosen career. His determination is likely to catapult him into the ranks of master technician and beyond. “My mom's a baby sitter and my dad's a taxi driver,” he says. “I'm going to do it for them.”