The Catonsville car shop that's a laboratory for students

Evan Buchman's first car was as old as he was. When he was 15, he got a 1998 Volvo V70.

The Catonsville teenager had plenty of work to do to make sure it ran smoothly.

He realized he enjoyed learning new skills — being able to repair his car — and he's making a career out of it.

The first-year student at Community College of Baltimore County is one of about 80 full-time students in the school's three-decade-old automotive service technology degree program.

Based on the Catonsville campus, it is designed to provide training for the next generation of car service technicians and mechanics. The college also offers night and weekend classes, essentially a la carte, for about 250 students interested in learning more about cars, but not in getting a degree.

Buchman expects to graduate with an associate of applied science degree and hopes to work at a performance shop to build fast cars.

"Auto mechanics should be one of those jobs that's around all the time," Buchman said. "Everybody drives, so it's a job that will always be around."

It's a common story, according to Harold Babb, a program coordinator.

"Once you start doing it it's like this is kind of fun," he said. "It's one of the trades where you get instant gratification. A car comes in broken. Two or three hours later it leaves. It's fixed. You did that."

But the supply of technicians is smaller than the demand, Babb said.

CCBC has offered manufacturer-sponsored programs that specialize in General Motors, Ford and Toyota vehicles, along with a global option, which doesn't focus on a make or model.

The General Motors program came first, and is now in its 31st year, Babb said. The Ford program is in its 30th year and the Toyota program is in its 29th.

In August, CCBC added a Mopar Career Automotive Program to its offerings, which trains students on Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge and Ram cars and trucks. The addition gives the school the potential to add 20 more students to the program.

Most of the CCBC programs can accept more students, Babb said, but while dealerships are having trouble finding qualified people to work, the school is having problems supplying them with what they need, Babb said. CCBS staff often recruits at local high schools.

While enrollment went up when the economy soured in 2008, as the economy improved the enrollment dipped, he said. In individual programs there are dips and valleys, but he has no explanation as to why.

Babb said the program would like to have as many people as it can have be a part of it.

"We're kind of the best-kept secret on campus," he said. "We just need to let more people, especially in our community, know we're here and we're ready to go, because the industry definitely needs more technicians."

There are plenty of jobs available for qualified technicians, Babb said.

"We don't have a problem finding places for people to go to," he said. "There's always a demand for it."

Classes are limited at 20 for safety reasons, Babb said.

Babb said women are few and far between in the CCBC classes — he estimated a total of four are enrolled at the moment — but they perform well and he'd like to see more join the industry.

The lack of qualified auto technicians dates back to the economy tailing off in the last decade, according to Peter Kitzmiller, president of the Maryland Automotive Dealers Association.

He believes there is a need for more qualified technicians as technology makes cars more complex and many older technicians are nearing retirement.

"It's a critical shortage," he said.

Maryland had the fifth highest annual mean wage in the nation for automotive service technicians and mechanics — $45,250 — as of May 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

At new-car dealerships, Kitzmiller said the annual wage is slightly higher, north of $50,000, and for some, there is the potential to make a six-figure salary.

"We represent 300 new car dealers in Maryland," he said. "Ninety percent of them will tell you today they have a need for one or two technicians yesterday."

Students alternate between classroom instruction at CCBC and paid work-study sessions at local dealerships in eight-week cycles. They are able to complete the program in about 27 months. Each semester, tuition and fees are about $1,600, while book costs are about $175.

On campus, the students receive training on specific vehicles and systems.

First year students, such as Buchman, start their time at CCBC learning about car basics, such as safely lifting a car on a hoist and how to repair tires, measure brake rotors and drums and how to deal with hazardous waste and chemicals.

They learn these skills in preparation for spending time at a dealership, where they can be useful right away, Babb said.

In the transmission room, instructors show students a presentation on how they work, and then put transmissions on a bench, disassemble it and show how to rebuild it. They can then place it on a transmission dynamometer, a machine to test the component without using a vehicle. If it works, everything is great. But if it doesn't, they can diagnose the problem and try to fix it.

"By the time they leave, every transmission works," Babb said. "Sometimes there's more to be learned on the ones that don't work."

A similar machine for engines is in the works, and could be ready for students in the coming weeks, Babb said.

Job placement in the manufacturer-based programs is 100 percent, Babb said, as students must be employed by a sponsoring dealership in order to remain in the program. The college coordinates placement of students in the sponsoring dealerships.

"While they're here, they're kind of renting that information," Babb said. "When they go to the dealership and do it every day — eight hours a day because it's a paid internship — that's where they own the knowledge."

As Kevin Tevelow's second year in the program began, he learned about steering and suspension systems in the classroom. The 19-year-old Taylorsville resident works at Ourisman Volkswagen of Laurel as a technician, which he started after his first semester.

He hopes to continue working as a technician or move on to a four-year program to become an automotive engineer.

He came in knowing technical aspects of cars, but the program has taught him more of a mechanical perspective and given him more hands-on experience.

"We don't want to be stuck in the office just pushing papers and all that jazz," he said. "We want to be up on our feet and moving around and what better way to do that than with something we love doing, which is working on cars."

In addition to the hands-on training, manufacturers provide web-based courses on subjects such as customer service and business ethics, Babb said.

Capitol Cadillac, in Greenbelt, is one of more than 50 dealers involved with the CCBC program. Its shop foreman, Rusty Drew, said his dealership could use four or five additional technicians on days when staff is overloaded.

The dealership regularly turns to the Catonsville program for technicians, Drew said, adding two current students are there, now.

Students there start at the dealership's quick service bays so staff can get a feel of the student's basic knowledge, Drew said. They will then move on to being an apprentice, working under an experienced technician.

The goal is to end up as a full technician, Drew said, adding most of the students the dealership has sponsored have stayed there after graduating.

"Really, the only route now is to try to grow them from the ground up," he said. "The guy who has working on cars for 20 years is not knocking on our door, anymore."

Just don't think about bringing your own car into the school. The cars come to the college from the manufacturer and are less than five model years old.

Trying to do custom work shifts the focus from learning to productivity and trying to get cars fixed and out the door, Babb said. The staff wants to keep the focus on learning.

"Most people consider this a shop," he said. "For us, it's a lab."

Hitting the books

A sampling of required courses within the program includes courses in servicing and repairing heating and air conditioning systems, electrical systems, engines, transmissions and suspensions.

General education requirements include introductory classes in communication, psychology, writing and environmental science.

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