NORTH HAVEN — Seven students enrolled in the General Motors Automotive Training Program at Gateway Community College are gathered around a 2013 Chevy Equinox on a Thursday morning. Today’s assignment? Find the leak.
A laptop is hooked up to the front of the car to communicate with the vehicle’s computerized system. The students listen as their professor, Dan Fuller, tells them how to solve the puzzle — blow smoke into the fuel system and watch where it comes out.
The students are second-years taking a course called engine diagnostics. Each student is also working a paid internship with a car dealer in the state, and Fuller explained that by the time these students graduate with a two-year certificate or degree, they will already have a job waiting for them.
“There’s so much demand. We have calls all the time from dealers and shops, and of course they all want, you know, ‘Give me your best graduates.’ And we don’t have graduates. We have interns that are all snapped up very quickly by the shops that are willing to partner,” said Fuller, who is chair of the college’s automotive department.
According to the United States Bureau and Labor Statistics, demand for auto mechanics is not expected to change much over the next 10 years. The Bureau anticipates 69,000 jobs being available to auto mechanics and technicians each year over the next decade.
However, a report from the TechForce Foundation, a non-profit supported by multiple automotive corporations, including Ford and GM, anticipates the demand to be even higher. This is mostly because of a need to replace people who leave the field. In 2021, the report predicts a need for 178,000 technicians, with the demand reducing to between 80,000 and 85,000 yearly in the four years following.
Fuller, who worked for General Motors for 20 years before coming to teach at Gateway in 2010, said he wants to get young people interested in the career that he said has been so good to him. He said the average entry-level technician can make $75,000 per year.
One of the students in the diagnostics class, 19-year-old Ray Queen, is interning at his father’s auto shop in Derby. He said he enjoys being able to fix cars for people he knows.
“Over time, you kind of get more appreciative of it because not only are you helping a community, but you’re helping out some friends and all that stuff,” he said.
Queen said in the future, he could see himself working for Sikorsky as a mechanical engineer or an avionics technician, working on airplanes.
20-year-old David Sanders said he enjoyed the combination of working with his hands and problem-solving that automotive work requires. He said that after he got his first car, a Ford Focus, he would go through online forums to figure out how to solve whatever was wrong.
“I just really enjoy that process of getting the problem and fixing it, that little … sense of accomplishment you get when you solve something yourself,” he said.
“I see a future in this”
Fuller’s efforts to bring young people into the field aren’t simply confined to classrooms at Gateway, Fuller says he also spends a significant amount of time traveling to high schools to encourage interest. According to Fuller, given the shrinking population of high schoolers in the state, attracting enough students has become more of a challenge.
Gateway offers college credits to high school students who take automotive classes at their high schools. Fuller said that North Haven, Branford, and Bacon Academy all have programs that allow students to earn college credits that go toward Gateway’s automotive program. West Haven is in the process of being approved.
Hillhouse High School in New Haven recently became the latest school to join the list. The school held a ceremony on Wednesday dedicating their new automotive training center, the result of a collaboration between Gateway, the Justice Education Center, the City of New Haven, and representatives from the automobile industry.
The college also donated a vehicle for the students to work on — a 2012 Chevrolet Cruze.
Bob Alvine, president of Premier Subaru in Branford and one of the sponsors of the Hillhouse training center, said that the increasing complexity of automotive technology means that the field is no longer considered a fallback for young people who can’t make it in college.
“Years ago in many ways, technical school was a program for kids that …. didn’t have a college path ahead of them. So it wasn’t looked at as a primary,” he said. “Now, with the complications of vehicles and technology, it’s actually a primary. It’s extremely important as our technology moves into more electric vehicles and all sorts of computerizing that this is so important for us to invest in for the future.”
So far, eight seniors are enrolled in the automotive program at Hillhouse. John Samson, who teaches the class, said the course includes basic safety, vehicle inspection and how to perform oil and tire changes. The students will be able to earn college credit with the coursework, and possibly have the opportunity to attend classes at Gateway in the spring.
One of the seniors, Aliyah, grew up watching her grandfather and uncle work on her uncle’s Toyota. She said that, as a child, she was allowed to “help out” by handing them tools. And after her uncle died, she said she decided to go into automotive work.
Rafael, another student in the automotive program, remembers working on cars with his cousin in Puerto Rico. He said he sees a career in automotive work as an opportunity to help his family.
“Since I was a kid, this was my dream,” he said. “I see a future in this.”
Both Aliyah and Rafael expressed interest in the Gateway program, and Aliyah said she liked the fact that she could remain close to her mom, and that the program was affordable.
“Kids like in Hillhouse, all they need is opportunity. And if someone doesn’t step up and give them the opportunity, then they’ve got no options,” said Fuller.
Fuller said he was able to increase enrollment in the program at Gateway by over 65 percent between 2014 and 2019, but those efforts have been hampered by the pandemic, which limited classroom enrollment to allow for social distancing. Classes that previously included 18 to 20 students, he said, dropped to as few as five or six students in fall 2020.
Now the department’s total enrollment is 100 students, a drop from about 140 students prior to COVID-19.
Fuller said one of his goals is to have a new facility for the program built in downtown New Haven. He said he believed the program was missing out on potential students because they weren’t able to get transportation that would take them out to the North Haven campus.
“We’re not meeting the needs of some really cool students that this would work for. And that hurts. So I’m hopeful that before I decide to cut out, hopefully we can get it resolved and I can leave it in good hands,” he said.
Taking a “U-turn”
According to Fuller, beyond the work to attract more students, there’s a need to keep up with the latest technologies. Computerization has already changed the role of auto technicians, said Fuller, and the advent of electric vehicles may produce an even more dramatic shift.
Fuller said that he’s watched auto maintenance change drastically since he started working as a professional auto technician in 1981. What was once a field that relied more on mechanical skills than on critical thinking abilities has now been flipped on its head. With computers and more durable auto parts, fixing a problem is for the most part simple — the real work is in determining what’s gone wrong.
“With the brakes, the diagnosis might’ve been five minutes to measure a part and two hours to make a mechanical repair. Now it may be three hours of logic and testing to determine a fault, and the repair might be 15 minutes of programming or updating or changing a module or something. So the labor versus thought process have completely changed,” said Fuller.
Fuller said that technology has also become a critical skill for auto mechanics — technicians need to be able to program customer’s phones and update infotainment systems. He said the students are well up to the task.
“These guys, because they grew up as a tech generation, they’re so savvy with computers and with diagnostics and programming — which is what this industry is now,” said Fuller.
Fuller predicted that the program would implement some key changes over the next five years. One of the biggest, he said, would be a new focus on electric vehicles. Fuller said students are already taking online courses on hybrid electric vehicle safety, and that dealers would provide students with the hands-on learning.
Fuller said he expects that they will be able to teach the practical parts of electric vehicle maintenance on-site at Gateway within a few years.
“[Electric] is here to stay. I’ve never seen this level of commitment from companies,” said Fuller. “Volvo had pledged a date that they’re going to phase out the internal combustion engine. There isn’t a manufacturer out there who doesn’t at least have a hybrid or a battery assist or something.”
Fuller said the change to electric vehicles could mean a benefit both for the environment and for the economy. He said he wants to be able to teach the first class on high-technology electric vehicles that the college offers.
“This industry is always going to be here and it’s going to take little curves and a lot of areas. And every once in a while, it’s going to take a U-turn or a left turn. And that’s what this is going to be these next five years. It’s going to be really cool — challenging — but it’s going to be really cool.”