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Auto tech students not the mechanics of yesteryear

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Posted: Monday, April 1, 2013 12:21 pm

OMAHA - Chase Newcomer grew up around hot rods. From the fifth grade on, he followed the progress as his grandfather restored a 1956 Chevy Bel Air.

"All of my grandpa's friends had cars and went to car shows all of the time," he said.

Chase, a 2007 graduate of Gretna High School, has automobiles in his DNA.

Two years ago, while studying criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Newcomer started looking into college programs for auto technology.

"Criminal justice didn't fit my personality," Newcomer said. "I naturally work on projects -- take things apart and fix them."

He discovered that Southeast Community College at Lincoln and Milford, Metropolitan Community College in Omaha and Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs had good two-year programs.

Now, Newcomer is a junior in the automotive technology program at Iowa Western Community College. He is on his way to becoming a master technician.

What he is learning has little to do with the mechanics of a 1956 Chevy.

Automobile technology (don't call it mechanics) is one of the hottest programs offered at Iowa Western and Metropolitan Community College. Classes are regularly full. At Metro, there is a waiting list.

That is because auto dealerships and independent auto repair shops need technicians who are not only good mechanics but also are computer and electronics savvy. It's a different world from when Fonzie hunkered over his engine on "Happy Days."

"There are as many as 50 onboard computers on the car that communicate with each other," said Al Cox, lead automotive instructor at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha. People don't tinker with cars anymore because they might cause a glitch in the computers.

Cox said Metro teaches students everything they need to know to be an entry-level technician -- tire repair, oil changes, safety inspection and general shop safety. "Everything they are going to do at the very beginning," Cox said.

Students also learn about electrical systems, engines, transmissions and suspension systems.

"At the end of the two-year program," Cox said, "they have an entry-level knowledge of how to repair and diagnose a car from bumper to bumper."

Jerry Nissen, chairman of Iowa Western's auto technology program, said entry requirements have been added for incoming students.

"They have to be able to read, write and do math at a certain level," he said. "These are complex diagnostics. That means a 17 or higher in English composition on the ACT and 16 or higher in reading."

First-year students learn how different auto systems work and learn maintenance and light repair. During the second year, they learn about engine performance and drivability.

"Before they leave, we have an in-depth class on hybrids and alternative fuel vehicles," Nissen said.

Metro offers a Certificate of Achievement for those students completing the 49-credit-hour program, including 36 hours in basic automotive service. The two-year program is for an Associate in Applied Science degree, involving 27 credit hours of general education and 83 credit hours of automotive technology.

Due to the complexities of today's automobiles, the industry long ago began referring to repair specialists as technicians rather than mechanics.

"The word 'mechanic' doesn't create the picture in the mind of what the current technician does," Cox said. "I can remember before I was 12 years old I was helping my dad do valve jobs on a car. Now, people don't want to get under the hood for fear of damaging circuits."

Today's auto technician has to know how to study wiring diagrams and use computer diagnostics.

"If you want to make serious money, you need to be really involved with electronic diagnosis," Cox said. By serious money, Cox said he means $100,000-plus per year.

After completing a two-year degree in auto technology and a year of work experience, graduates can gain certification as a master technician by taking a series of exams from the ASE (National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence).

At that level, Cox said, some dealerships provide experienced technicians with a new car, on top of a six-figure salary.

"They want you to stay working for them," he said.

"You have to have a solid understanding of the basics of electricity," Cox said. Those things are reinforced every day working in the auto labs in the technology programs at Metro, Iowa Western and Southeast community colleges.

Modern cars are diagnosed through a 16-pin connector situated underneath the steering wheel. From there, a computer readout provides information about the approximately 50 onboard computers that communicate with each other. A technician must be able to interpret the data and determine what is working properly.

Though college labs are equipped with the latest in diagnostic equipment, students are required to purchase their own tools. The same tools are required for employment at any auto repair facility.

A basic set of entry-level tools, which includes a tool cart, is priced at about $14,000. Students receive a 50 percent discount from most tool manufacturers.

"You are always buying tools," said Dan Gengel, a second-year student at Metro. "They are always coming out with something that is making it easier to do what you want to do."

Metro currently has a waiting list of potential auto technology students, Cox said. Most of the 70 students in auto technology take two classes at a time. Lab sessions are from 8 a.m. to noon and from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., allowing students to work.

Gengel said he has worked at private shops in Bellevue and Omaha but is now trying to allow more time to finish the Metro schooling.

Two years of school count as one year of experience when applying for an ASE master technician certificate. The ASE exams require one additional year of experience (or two years of experience if a technician does not have a two-year degree).

"The do-it-yourselfer is pretty much out of business," Nissen said.

Once school is completed, Chase Newcomer has one goal besides his career in auto technology. A 1956 Chevy Bel Air -- like the one his grandfather restored (with no computers) -- waits in the garage for him to begin restoration

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