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Want a job in automotive? Better be good with electronics

Good careers to be found under the hood if you're tech-savvy

  • Andrew Hoy

Andrew Hoy has seen the future of auto repair and it’s him.

The 17-year-old Sir Wilfrid Laurier Collegiate student will spend his last semester this fall working away at the Heritage Ford dealership on Kingston Road and dreaming about an apprenticeship in January.

A disinterested student who had some ability in science and math, Hoy found a new passion for learning in the co-op program at the dealership this past spring.

And while many university graduates are grinding it out as coffee-shop baristas, automotive school grads are being snapped up like so many iced lattes by an industry thirsty for young talent.

Whether it’s to swing a wrench or juggle parts numbers, auto technicians, dealership managers, fleet managers and others are in demand.

Baby-boomers are retiring and must be replaced. Statistics Canada doesn’t track specific jobs in the auto sector, but demand for auto technicians is projected to grow by 17 per cent between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The challenge is that cars have more technology in them and this is creating demand for more highly skilled technicians. Although cars don’t need as much maintenance as they used to, there are more cars out there that need work, and the skills required are more complex. The worry is that Canada’s post-secondary sector is not recruiting and training enough people to fill the need.

One of the roadblocks lies in social attitudes. Dave Samalea at Centennial College’s School of Transportation says parents would rather their kids chase a degree at a university, even though many university graduates end up in debt and have few job prospects.

But students who take an auto apprenticeship end up with both a job and money in the bank, says Tony Rende, who teaches experiential learning (which used to be called autoshop) at Central Technical School in Toronto.

“Those who go into an apprenticeship program are getting paid to learn,” he says. “By the time they get their licence, they should have money in the bank, a car and maybe a condo, while university grads end up with debt.”

And forget the old stereotype of kids with below-average grades being told to consider auto mechanics as a career, say both Rende and Samalea. The car industry wants tech-savvy youths who can use the Internet to research issues and find parts, use electronics to analyze and troubleshoot, and make sense of complex wiring diagrams. Above all, they should harbour a passion to solve problems.

The kind of people becoming apprentices is changing, says Samalea, although they are generally still men.

Centennial sees a steady flow of 20- to 25-year-old students in its programs, but it also has a lot of older, new Canadians and mature students embarking on a second career. Some are sponsored as apprentices, while others are taking the courses hoping to find jobs after graduation.

And it’s not just under the hood where talent is needed, notes Jennifer Sheremeto, a marketing specialist at Georgian College. The Barrie school offers three programs geared to the management and marketing side of the auto sector.

“They learn everything from the law around sales, customer-relationship management, and what it takes to run a dealership from a financial point of view,” she explains.

The Automotive Business School is a collaboration between the Canadian Auto Dealers Association, car manufacturers, auto retailers and aftermarket businesses. Over the past 27 years, it has graduated 3,200 students, and 90 per cent have jobs in the auto industry.

“The industry can’t wait for students to graduate,” Sheremeto says. “They’re salivating; 72 per cent of these students got jobs from their co-op placements.”

Getting young people into the auto sector is not that hard, but making sure they’re the right students to make a career of it is, says Rende.

“I’ve been doing this 15 years now, and I’ve seen a lot of wrong kids funnelled into the program. If a kid doesn’t do well in school, it doesn’t mean they’ll do well in shop.”

But some students do light up in shop class. While they tune out abstract concepts such as math, they find that a practical application, such as engine displacement, for example, gives the numbers meaning.

“Students who would have a hard time passing math are then getting it,” Rende says. “What we do is light a fire.”

Andrew Hoy was certainly happy to be sweating it out this summer at Heritage Ford.

“I wanted something in a trade, but the school couldn’t place me as an electrician or elevator repair,” he says. “They offered me this and I thought I’d give it a shot.

“I really love it. I mean, I liked cars before, but now it has grown into an addiction.”

Contest leads to new career

Janos Mann understands the dream. With his final apprenticeship exams set six months or so down the road, he’s close to getting his licence as an auto repair technician.

Mann was in the Central Tech shop program. He got a fast-track start to his career when he and fellow student Julien Predas won a skills competition sponsored by the Trillium Automotive Dealers Association at the Toronto auto show in 2008, and then went on to win the national finals in New York.

“Part of the prize was a $10,000 scholarship for a year-and-a-half at the Universal Technical Institute in Orlando,” he says.

Upon his return, he landed a job at Humberview Motorsports, where he is an apprentice in the luxury division.

“I work on really nice clean cars now at Humberview — Beemers, Mercedes — it’s nice,” he says.


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