For 17 of the 22 years that Larry Cummings owned an Oldsmobile-GMC dealership in Crawfordsville, IN, Olds was the No.1 seller in that market despite the brand's fatal decline nationally.
Now Cummings is trying to make another mark in the auto industry as the new president and CEO of the Automotive Youth Educational Systems (AYES), an alliance formed to ease a serious shortage of qualified dealership service technicians.
The Department of Labor estimates the auto industry will need to fill 35,000 auto technician jobs annually in this decade.
“I joined AYES in June and I'm amazed at the passion of the people involved,” says Cummings.
Patterned after a European model, AYES began in 1995 at the urging of John F. Smith, CEO of General Motors Corp. at the time.
Inspired by what he saw of a European apprenticeship program, he challenged U.S. dealers to get involved in technical education in their communities through partnerships with secondary schools.
It expanded from a GM to an industry-wide effort that now involves 13 auto makers, 4,200 dealerships and 5,700 students enrolled at 370 schools in 45 states.
Here's how it works:
Qualified high school juniors are recruited into the program that includes automotive technology courses at their schools and training to strengthen employability skills such as dependability, attitude and teamwork.
AYES students typically intern at dealerships during the summer between their junior and senior years. In their senior year, they work at the dealerships after school. Experience technicians mentor them as they work towards AYES certification.
Upon graduation, they're prepared for a full-time dealership job or ready to advance their technical education.
“They have a job waiting for them where they've interned for a year and a half,” says Cummings. “That's an edge.”
Mentoring is a strong part of it. “Dealing with a master technician who likes to teach is a valuable experience,” says Cummings.
A challenge is selling students and schools on the benefits.
“Many good jobs do not require a college degree, and AYES leads bright students to those jobs in our industry,” says NADA Chairman Charley R. Smith. “How many educators and guidance counselors know about automotive careers? Not enough.”
For dealers, it requires an investment “and if you're not willing to put the time in, you probably shouldn't participate,” says Henry Primeaux of Henry Primeaux's Crown Bristow, a Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge store in Bristow, OK.
He's the recipient of AYES's first Dealer of the Year award. He had started his own technician training program four years before Smith convinced him to join the AYES effort.
Primeaux has had as many as six AYES interns working at his store in one year.
“He has such passion for the program,” says Cummings. “And he has such a stand-up staff.”
From Fixing Tanks to Cars
Mechanics who keep tanks running are perfect candidates for a new initiative called “Hire the Heroes.” It fills dealership jobs with people leaving the military.
It's the brainchild of Automotive Retailing Today (ART) a coalition of auto makers and dealership organizations.
ART sees “Heroes” as combating a shortage of qualified dealership employees — especially service technicians — while also helping military personnel transition into civilian life, says ART Chairman James Willingham, a GM dealer in Long Beach, CA.
He says many military veterans are technologically savvy, motivated and disciplined.
“The qualities demonstrated by military personnel are the same qualities every dealer looks for in an employee,” says Trish Serratore of the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) which now offers technician certification testing at military bases.
“They can become certified before they leave the military,” she says.
The new program provides links — Internet and otherwise — between thousands of dealers and military outplacement agencies. It ranges from posting job opportunities on military websites such as www.marineforlife.com to selling prospects on the benefits of working at dealerships.
Chief Warrant Officer Kurt Schultz, who trains U.S. Army mechanics, says “Someone is not going to be working on a tank at a dealership, but they have a deep understanding of electronics and a lot of their skills are transferable.”
Adds Willingham: “A quartermaster would be an ideal person to work in a parts department.”
He says 79% of dealers in the South and 69% in the Northeast report a shortage of highly trained technicians.
“These high-paid jobs can go wanting because people don't realize the benefits,” he says. “We're trying to change that.”
By Steve Finlay