Throttling Up: Diesel and Automotive Technician Training Programs

May 1, 2018
Industry educators and aftermarket professionals are working hard to fill a looming employment gap in the automotive aftermarket by getting word out about training and employment opportunities.

The world has started spinning at a new rate of speed. We’re talking lots of horsepower and enough torque to throw you into a new career trajectory before you realize you’ve been launched. Industry educators and professionals alike are working hard to fill a looming employment gap in the automotive aftermarket by getting the word out about training and employment opportunities.

Today’s vehicles are powerful, highly intricate and meticulously engineered computers on wheels. In order to turn wrenches these days, you must be part electrician, computer programmer, mechanical engineer and, of course, gear-head.

Qualified automotive and diesel technicians are in higher demand than ever before. Many shops and dealerships are offering sign-on bonuses, educational reimbursement or handsome compensation for promising automotive and diesel technicians right out of school.

“North America is a mobile society. How do you keep the globe moving without the technicians to do so? The opportunities available to automotive and diesel technicians right now are high-tech and high-touch, and that in itself is rare,” said Shell Lubricants director of North America Influence Strategy and Engagement, Nancy Bruner.

Some would argue, society has perpetuated a belief that to be successful, you must graduate from a four-year university. But in the automotive aftermarket, that’s far from the truth.

“Many educators still focus on everyone going to get a four-year degree, but there are just as many, if not more opportunities for people with a solid education in skilled trade,” said John Dodson, vice president of Business Alliances at Universal Technical Institute. “We have to overcome the assumption that everyone needs a four-year degree. The opportunities for our graduates are abundant, and we take an active role in putting our graduates in those jobs. We’ve seen students who didn’t do very well in community college come here and make straight As, because they are getting the kinds of high-tech, hands-on education that fits their interests and their learning style.”

Programs offered by schools like Universal Technical Institute, McPherson College and Hennessey Performance Tuner School, to name a few, all focus on professionalism, hands-on learning and intensive study. Each of them have their own unique focus of learning, depending on what you’re interested in and the level of certification you’re seeking.

Flexible Campus Learning

With 12 campuses across the country, Universal Technical Institute offers prospective students a plethora of options. UTI’s flagship campus is in Phoenix, Arizona, while its home office is in Scottsdale, Arizona. Other campus locations include: Rancho Cucamonga, California; Orlando, Florida; Norwood, Massachusetts; Houston, Texas; Sacramento, California; Mooresville, North Carolina; Long Beach, California; Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas; Exton, Pennsylvania; and Lisle, Illinois. Campus No. 13 is coming soon to Bloomfield, New Jersey. UTI features motorcycle institutes in Orlando and Phoenix and a marine institute in Orlando. UTI offers seven core education programs: automotive, motorcycle, diesel, marine, collision repair, welding and CNC machining.

“Our core curriculum for automotive technicians is 51 weeks long. The diesel technician course is 45 weeks. We have a lot of students who take the combined course of auto and diesel, which is 75 weeks, before going on to a Manufacturer Specific Advanced Training (MSAT) program,” said Michael Romano, president of UTI’s Avondale, Arizona, campus. “When students enter the MSAT program where they can earn certifications and credentials from specific OEMs,” said Michael Romano, president of UTI's Avondale, Arizona campus. “More than 30 of the industry's leading brands including Cummins, Ford, BMW, GM, Porsche, Volvo, Freightliner and Peterbuilt partner with us and hire our graduates.”

Once students complete MSAT, they receive their credentials and certification.

“That’s a major way the industry has changed over the years,” Romano said. “In the past, it was ASE (certification). But now, if a student is educated specifically on a manufacturer’s vehicles and technology, it adds value and opens up warranty opportunities. Obviously, the opportunity to do warranty work comes with a higher revenue stream.”

Revving Up Performance

John Hennessey, president of Hennessey Performance and Hennessey Tuner School, has been in the business of making fast cars go faster since 1991. These days, he lends years of knowledge to the next generation of techs at Hennessey Tuner School, located in Sealy, Texas. According to Hennessey, all that’s needed to enroll in Tuner School is a passion for performance and a high school diploma or GED.

“Students can enroll in our 14-week program. We have three different semesters to choose from: January-April, May-August or September-December. Each week is comprised of the basic building blocks of performance — not only knowledge and theory, but also hands-on work turning wrenches,” Hennessey said. “The first couple of weeks, they may start out with an oil change. (Hennessey likes to think of it as a right of passage for some who may not have ever done that before.) After that, we get into more advanced things. They’ll get exposure to welding and fabrication, engine calibration and finally conclude the class by putting a supercharger in.”

At Hennessey Tuner School, students don’t work on just any run-of-the-mill cars.

“The vehicles we have at the school are typically late-model 2010-2015 Camaro SS. They come from the factory with V8 engines that have around 400 horsepower. When the students are done with them, they are a little over 700 horsepower,” Hennessey said. “We have a quarter-mile drag strip right outside our Tuner School facility. Students get to take their cars to the drag strip to test the performance on their vehicles once every four to six weeks. If they made a tweak to say, the chassis dyno for example, they might want to go to the track to see if they increased the power; they can investigate why it may have changed or if it picked up a certain level of performance at one speed over another.”

Hennessey has one main mission for students who graduate from Tuner School — for them to be equipped with the skills to move on to the next step in their career, no matter what that may be. However, Hennessey isn’t giving away all his secrets.

“Our goal for a Tuner School graduate is to come out of the program with the basic skills to gain an entry-level job at our business or another performance shop,” Hennessey said. “One of our sayings is, ‘We teach our students everything they know, but we don’t teach them everything we know.’”

The Restoration Path

If you would rather make a rusty treasure shine, perhaps your path points to McPherson College in McPherson, Kansas. McPherson College is the only school in the country that offers a bachelor’s degree in Automotive Restoration Technology. McPherson’s four-year program provides students with many advantages, including internships with national museums and restoration shops, in-depth learning and dedicated instructors who provide a personalized experience.

Aaron Milam, a 2011 McPherson graduate, wrote about how the program helped steer the trajectory of his career in a recent automotive restoration alumni newsletter.

“In 2014, I opened an automotive restoration shop in the Austin, Texas, area called Aaron’s Paint and Upholstery,” Milam wrote. “It started by working on side projects after my full-time job at another restoration shop. Word-of-mouth got around quickly, and I realized I had enough work to go out on my own. We do everything required for frame-off restorations except machine work. The majority of our work consists of body and paint on older vehicles; however, we usually have one or two frame-off restorations that include mechanical, as well.”

Incredible Employment Opportunities

Educating and training students is only the first step. Schools like UTI also help make sure students will have opportunities for employment after they graduate.

“There is a significant demand for our graduates in diesel and automotive [positions]. Of dealerships I've spoken with, they estimate they lose about $40,000 per month by not having a credentialed technician in a bay. As you can imagine, when they are down a technician, it's a huge hit to the shop's revenue,” Romano said. “We set up career fairs so students and potential employers have a chance to connect. Our career fairs consist of about 50 different employers per day conducting about 200-250 interviews on one of our campuses. Many of our students will receive job offers, and some, on occasion, have offers six months before graduation — because of the demand for the skill sets we give students.”

Students choosing a diesel or automotive education program should be sure the program they choose helps match them with potential employers. Good questions to ask a prospective school include: How many of your graduates are employed directly after graduation? Who is employing your graduates? What is your course completion rate?

“We’ve created contractual agreements with more than 3,800 dealerships and shops to offer our students some level of tuition reimbursement or incentive program. That may mean working for a company that handles your tuition payments every month until it’s paid in full or them saying, ‘We’ll pay a portion of your tuition and give you a tool incentive,’” Romano said.

Location relocation services and sign-on bonuses are very common, as well.

An Industry Effort

Trained technicians keep shops open and cars on the road. Automotive education programs keep good techs in those shops, and vehicle manufacturers, as well as suppliers, funnel the latest and greatest technologies to the automotive education programs. They supply learning labs with vehicles, parts and funds, so students never lack resources or the ability to learn something new.

“Having partners, like Shell Pennzoil, providing their technology to us, and the OEMs, that make sure our students have industry-aligned technology and vehicles to work on are very important,” Dodson said.

UTI’s partners feel the same way.

“If something is interesting to my customers, it’s fascinating to me,” said Mark Henry, team lead for Shell Lubricants Brand, Influencer and Digital Teams. “If all I do as a supplier of lubricants is go in and try to sell lubricants, then my customers are not getting a bang for their buck. We need to understand our customers and help solve their problems.”

A problem facing the industry today is the pending shortage — or current shortage, depending on location — of trained technicians.

“I have a vested interest in making sure (shops have) the best person possible doing that job; because on the flip side, if I don’t have a trained technician installing my products correctly, it reflects on my brand, too,” Henry said. “The profitability and success of my customers and their ability to grow directly impacts my bottom line. We all have a stake in making sure there are good people in the pipeline to hire. I want to make sure the jobs associated with this industry that don’t have the label ‘high-tech’ right now get that label one day soon.”

It’s time to pursue change and get excited by it. Say yes to more things that excite your passions. Now is the time to dial in, throttle down and dive head first into your new — or more advanced — automotive technician career.