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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 9, 2002

Hawai'i auto mechanics in high demand

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Transportation Writer

Top auto technicians are in such demand in Hawai'i that companies frequently offer salaries topping $60,000, provide thousands of hours of scholarships and in-service training, raid other businesses, and fight to get top students like law firms picking the cream of the crop from a prestigious school.

Under the hood

• Shops: The number of auto repair shop listings in the phone book has dropped from 23 to 18 columns in 10 years

• High-tech: The typical car has 10 to 15 computers controlling the engine, radio and navigation system and more

• Training: Five-semester program at Leeward and Honolulu community colleges

Salary: Top mechanics can earn as much as $100,000

• The Instructor: "You've got to know some physics, thermodynamics, calculus..." — Craig Ohta, assistant professor, HCC

Even so, turnover remains high, and many established mechanics end up leaving the business to pursue other careers and interests, school and industry officials say.

"We're always looking for the best and the brightest and figuring out ways to keep them here," said Neal Tanaka, technical training manager for Servco Pacific, which operates more than a dozen Chevrolet, Toyota and Suzuki dealerships and other auto businesses throughout the state.

Today's certified auto technicians are some of the most highly trained workers in the state and often are paid accordingly, but they remain dogged by a public perception that they are "grease monkeys" or "shade-tree mechanics," industry officials say.

The work requires high levels of technical and analytical skills as well as a willingness to get down and dirty in the old-fashioned mechanic's way, they say.

"In a lot of ways it's cheaper and easier to open a doctor's office than a repair shop today," said Dan Kawamoto, assistant service manager for Cutter Dodge in Honolulu. "It takes at least 10 years of constant work, training and experience to reach a level of acceptable competence."

The University of Hawai'i's Leeward and Honolulu community colleges provide the only two nationally certified programs for training young mechanics in the state. Officials at HCC say the requirements for the program are so stringent that, on average, only about 14 of the 78 students in the program at any one time complete the full five-semester regimen.

"People just don't have any idea of how tough it is," said Craig Ohta, an assistant professor at HCC. "Everybody still thinks of them as grease monkeys, but that's total malarkey. Cars have become so complicated that you need to be able to think and learn while you work."

In the first two semesters, students are grounded in the basics of auto mechanics, and some leave at that point to take relatively low-paying jobs like doing oil changes or fixing tires over and over again. In the "make-or-break" third semester, the program introduces more electronics and computer systems, which in recent years have come to dominate automotive technology.

"The fourth and fifth semesters are basically a brain fry," Ohta said. "By then, you've got to know some physics, thermodynamics, calculus — and you've got to be able to analyze problems that you've never seen before. A lot of them don't make it through that point."

To ensure a steady supply of qualified technicians, many automobile dealers and service centers have established their own scholarship programs at the two schools, identifying top students, paying their tuition and helping with the cost of tools in hopes they'll end up working for the company after they graduate.

"There's nearly 100 percent placement, if they want it," said Paul Allen, an associate professor at HCC. "A few top mechanics can earn more than $100,000 a year here."

In recent years, however, many of the top students and candidates have been lured away to other fields, including computer repair, which is seen as easier and cleaner than auto repair. Even many of the students going through the automotive technician training see it as a stepping stone to something else.

"Nobody wants to wrench their whole life," said Ian Ueki, a 23-year-old from Maui who will complete his third semester in the HCC program this month.

"Look at all the old-timers. They're always really grim. They're grouches. They don't really like the work anymore."

Others say that once the thrill is gone from the job, they'll probably move on.

"Good mechanics want to stay on top with new challenges all the time," said Ryan Chang, another third-semester student. "It's an insult to be doing one brake job after another."

Chang said he might work for a dealer when he graduates, but he's also considering careers in the Army or in criminal justice.

Industry officials say the ever-changing, more sophisticated nature of automobiles presents the greatest challenge to keeping an adequate supply of technicians.

A national report on automotive education notes that there are more computers on a typical car today than the first spacecraft. Typically, the 10 to 15 onboard computers operate everything from the engine to the radio to global positioning systems.

"The auto technology changes every nine months," Kawamoto said. "We're being asked to keep up the with Ph.D.s and master engineers who design the cars, and it's hard."

The changes are slowly driving many older mechanics and independent repair shops out of the business, he said. The number of auto repair shop listings in the O'ahu Yellow Pages has dropped from 23 columns to 18 columns in the past decade.

"There's tremendous frustration out there," he said. "It's impossible for them to stay up on all the changes, even if they can afford the $50,000 in diagnostic equipment that's required."

A federal law passed in 1996 was meant to standardize all on-board diagnostic equipment in cars sold in the United States, giving mom-and-pop repair shops a fighting chance to stay in business, Ohta said.

"But it didn't work," he added. "Everybody can look at the diagnostics, but the dealers still have access that gives them more knowledge. It's a real nightmare for the local repair shops."

Even at dealerships, where the technicians can specialize in one type of car for their whole career and receive extra training and expertise from the manufacturers, there's a looming sense that there may not be enough good mechanics to go around some day.

"A lot of the older guys, who have developed the skills and the feel for mechanics are getting ready to retire," Tanaka said. "We've got to be sure we can bring enough talented young ones along to stay in business."

Reach Mike Leidemann at 525-5460 or mleidemann@honoluluadvertiser.com.