STEP in right direction

Consider the irony: college graduates struggle to find jobs in a tight employment market, while the automotive industry struggles to meet the demand for skilled labor. Auto dealers are competing with other high tech industries for proficient employees, specifically automotive service technicians trained to repair today's sophisticated vehicles. Well-trained service technicians are a hot commodity

Consider the irony: college graduates struggle to find jobs in a tight employment market, while the automotive industry struggles to meet the demand for skilled labor.

Auto dealers are competing with other high tech industries for proficient employees, specifically automotive service technicians trained to repair today's sophisticated vehicles.

Well-trained service technicians are a hot commodity due to the skyrocketing demand and the advanced skill set required for the job. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says more than 60,000 automotive service jobs in the nation are going unfilled as automakers compete for skilled labor with other high tech industries. The number of available jobs in the field is expected to increase to 150,000 over the next eight years.

That's why BMW of North America launched a program to help keep pace with its dealers' burgeoning demand for service technicians. Called STEP, for Service Technician Education Program, the initiative has expanded in the past six years. It's turned out nearly 1,200 graduates. At least eight other automakers have since initiated similar programs.

Only top students at post-secondary automotive schools are STEP material. They do not pay tuition and the placement rate is consistently 100%. Candidates must be bright, highly motivated, drug free, and receive the highest grades and references.

BMW offers seven regional programs in Orlando, Phoenix, Houston, Fremont, California, Upper Saddle River, NJ, and Ontario, CA, for 27 weeks of intensive, hands-on training on all BMW models.

It's a big commitment. One young father commutes more than two hours each day from his home to the training facility in Upper Saddle River, NJ, losing precious time with his wife and two young children. He also works part-time after school at a local BMW dealership. The prospect of a good job at the end keeps him going.

“Our hope is to make a difference — not only in the automotive industry but also in young people's lives,” says Tom Purves, CEO of BMW Holding Corp.

Fueling the need for qualified BMW technicians is the quadrupling of BMW says in the U.S. over the past 10 years. More than 1.4 million BMWs are now on the road.

The enhanced technology in new BMWs requires training beyond what is available at automotive trade schools. Meanwhile, BMW estimates its dealers need about 400 new technicians a year to work in the 340 BMW dealerships nationwide.

The STEP program graduates about 340 service technicians annually — producing highly skilled personnel in about six months rather than the three to four years such training would otherwise require.

The company underwrites much of the cost of the additional training needed to service its vehicles. When hiring a STEP graduate, dealers reimburse BMW for a portion of the training costs.

In return, they get a highly skilled and competent worker, and can count on a good measure of employee loyalty. That's because the attrition rate for service technicians who completed STEP is 7% compared to the industry average of about 15%.

The average annual salary for a STEP graduate is $55,000. Once the graduate gains work experience, it can run as high as $75,000 — $100,000 in some regions. Many graduates have moved from their initial technician positions to sales, service management and field service engineering posts. One graduate is now a STEP head instructor.

An offshoot of STEP is MetroStep. It encourages minorities to become automotive service techs. It began this summer through the efforts of BMW, Atlanta Technical College and baseball legend Hank Aaron, who's now a BMW dealer in Atlanta.

Four Atlanta dealerships — Chris BMW, Global Imports, United BMW and Hank Aaron BMW — provided part-time jobs and mentoring to six students. The dealerships, in turn, plan to hire the students full-time once they complete the STEP program.

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