Recalls at Toyota are further evidence, Dick Rogers says, that the days of backyard mechanics are long gone. Today’s auto repair world is computer-driven, says Rogers, a professor of automotive technology at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield.
Recalls at Toyota are further evidence, Dick Rogers says, that the days of backyard mechanics are long gone.
Today’s auto repair world is computer-driven, says Rogers, a professor of automotive technology at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield.
“We have to continue to retrain, constantly, because we have 750 makes and models of cars, and who knows how many engine combinations,” Rogers said. “I hesitate to use the term ‘mechanic’ because you really have to be a master technician,” he added.”
At LLCC three automotive technology sections of 20 students each — morning, afternoon and night sessions — are as likely to linger over computer keyboards as carburetors when learning to repair today’s high-tech vehicles.
Classes typically are full, and the college is planning to expand the program when a $21.5 million Workforce Careers Center is completed in the fall of 2011. Rogers said LLCC would like to teach students to work on hybrids and high-performance vehicles.
Still hard work
Chatham resident Marcus Mitchell said he realized he needed more training if he wanted to move beyond oil changes and other routine maintenance at the auto-repair shop in Chatham where he works.
He is nearing the end of a one-year certificate of achievement in auto mechanics that covers the basics of electronics, diagnostics and power-train systems. His employer suggested the additional training, Mitchell said.
“There’s plentiful opportunity for people with the right experience,” said Mitchell, who is scheduled to complete the course this spring.
The college also offers a two-year associate degree of applied sciences that puts graduates on track to “master mechanic” qualification, said Rogers. Some also go on to obtain bachelor’s degrees in the field.
Computers are set up around the room in Rogers’ class, and a “mini” class sponsored by Ford Motor Co., is conducted entirely online. Manuals for various automotive systems line shelves. Math skills —converting ohms to whole numbers in an electrical circuit, for instance — also are a basic part of the textbook instruction.
But Rogers said he leaves would-be technicians with no illusions. Automotive repairs are hard work.
“It’s extremely demanding. It’s hard, it’s dirty and it’s smelly,” said Rogers, who has been in the industry for 25 years.
PTCM, DBW and TPS
The power-train control module, essentially a car’s computerized brain, is in charge when it comes to the modern vehicle, said Damon Tanke, who joined the college as an automotive instructor two years ago.
Almost every electronic command, from accelerating to braking, passes through the PTCM. And stepping on the gas just isn’t what it used to be.
Tanke explained that “drive-by-wire” networks have replaced accelerator cables in newer vehicles. A DBW and a “throttle position sensor” work together to determine how fast the driver intends to go.
“You physically don’t have a throttle cable that’s connecting you to the engine. The only thing you’re pushing down is essentially a sensor with a spring to implement the old feel of a throttle cable.” said Tanke.
“You are sending a signal to the computer, which in turn is sending a signal to a throttle on the engine.”
Tanke got a bachelor’s degree at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale after graduating from LLCC in 2001 with an associate degree in automotive technology. Before joining LLCC, he worked at a Springfield auto dealership, for a Ford technology service center in Dearborn, Mich., and for a diesel engine company in Indiana.
He said he can sympathizes with technicians working on the Toyota recalls, because repairs are only part of the solution.
“Every customer is different, every customer has a little different driving pattern,” said Tanke. “I like to use ‘normal driving conditions’ in my classes. But what’s ‘normal?’ What’s normal for me is not normal for my aunt or my grandma. It really depends on the person.”
A generational shift
Trial and error has not entirely disappeared from automotive repairs, however.
Asked to find electrical circuit problems in a 2006 Jaguar, James Skelton and his classmates at first resorted to a technique dear to the heart of any shade-tree mechanic.
“Basically, we’re just pushing buttons to see what works. Then, we’ll find out what we’re missing from the computer in a couple of minutes,” said Skelton, as the students swarmed over the Jaguar.
Skelton said his interest in automotive restoration came from his father, who works at a body repair shop in Peoria. Skelton commutes to classes from San Jose, about 50 miles north of Springfield.
Unlike 15 years ago, new students are more likely to be comfortable with the computer technology needed to learn modern automotive repairs, according to the instructors. Students with farm backgrounds or who grew up in rural areas also tend to have more hands-on experience, he said.
Tanke said he came to LLCC with basic mechanical skills learned from his father, a civil engineer who farms part time, and his farmer grandfather.
“I grew up working on stuff with my father -- holding my flashlight, getting the tools kind of stuff. I was brought up with the tractors and the lawnmowers,” said Tanke.
However, he said technology has accelerated the learning curve, requiring most technicians to update their training at least twice a year.
“It’s never-ending. That’s the good and the bad thing about the industry. You accept you’re always constantly evolving, or you probably need to look for something different because it’s a very high-paced, constantly evolving industry,” said Tanke.
Jobs open with training
Automotive technicians have a good chance of landing jobs based on trends between now and 2018, but only with post-secondary training, according to projections from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Some employers report difficulty finding workers with the right skills; those without formal training are likely to face competition for entry-level jobs. People with good diagnostic and problem-solving abilities, training in electronics and computer skills are expected to have the best opportunities,” said the 2010 Occupational Outlook report.
Most openings are expected to be at auto dealerships and independent shops; 50 percent of technicians earned $12.44 to $22.64 an hour nationwide in 2008, while 10 percent earned $9.56 or less and 10 percent earned $28.71 or more an hour.
Sign of the times?
Enrollment at 48 community colleges in Illinois hit a 27-year high of more than 380,000 in the fall of 2009, a 6.4 percent increase from 2008. The more than 223,000 full-time equivalents was a record.
Fall enrollment at Lincoln Land Community College of more than 7,800 was up 17.9 percent and spring enrollment is up 17.4 percent to more than 8,500. The figures include the Springfield, Jacksonville, Beardstown, Litchfield, Hillsboro and Taylorville campuses.
Tim Landis can be reached at (217) 788-1536 or firstname.lastname@example.org.