Originally published by Baton Rouge Business Report.
Gerry Lane Enterprises President Eric Lane can’t find enough certified auto repair technicians to keep his four Baton Rouge area dealerships fully staffed. And he knows he’s not alone.
“I don’t think there’s a service department in Baton Rouge who doesn’t need more techs,” says Lane, adding he’s currently looking for at least 11 certified technicians.
The need for All Star Automotive Group President and CEO Matt McKay is even greater. He says he would hire 60 technicians today for his company’s 11 area dealerships, if only he could find them. Describing the need as “tremendous,” McKay says dealerships and repair shops all across Louisiana are struggling to find skilled workers.
“You can call any car dealer in the state and ask them if they need technicians,” he says, “and they will say, ‘Yes.’”
“We’re creating a strong entry-level technician. We’re working to supply the demand for now and the future.” —Van Guarino, automotive department chair, Baton Rouge Community College
Lane and McKay are among those hoping the new McKay Automotive Training Center at Baton Rouge Community College—named for John W. McKay Jr., Matt’s late father, who worked for more than 30 years as a teacher, coach and principal in the local school system—will help fill the gap in their industry and make Baton Rouge a destination for auto technician training.
The new 83,000-square-foot center has been a decade in the making and cost roughly $25 million to build. BRCC contributed $19 million, while the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority and BRCC Foundation collectively contributed the other $6 million. A ribbon cutting was held on March 15 to mark completion of the center, for which ground was broken about two years ago.
“We’re creating a strong entry-level technician,” says Van Guarino, the BRCC automotive department chair and a well-known instructor who previously taught at the Livingston Parish Literacy and Technology Center. “We’re working to supply the demand for now and the future.”
Serving as a centerpiece of the Ardendale mixed-use development that’s under development on a 200-acre tract northeast of BRCC near Florida Boulevard, the auto center features two fully equipped diesel labs, three industry standard diagnostic/technical labs, six high-tech classrooms and a 100-seat auditorium. It offers students specialized classroom instruction and practical shop experience to prepare them to fill entry level technician jobs immediately after graduation.
Michael Kenney is among the first class of students. The 35-year-old Baton Rouge resident grew up watching his grandfather fix cars at the old Northside Motor Exchange on Scenic Highway and tinker with them during his free time as a favor for friends. He initially took a much different route, gaining certification as a barber and in the air conditioning/refrigeration field. But when he decided he wanted to change his career path, Kenney remembered his grandfather.
“While you’re working on cars, they’re not talking to you,” he says of the appeal of the auto repair industry.
Kenney and eight other students, including one female, began the two-year program last fall and were followed by another seven students who started this spring. They will all follow one of two degree tracks, either automotive technology or diesel heavy truck technology, both of which lead to an associate degree in applied science. The course catalog for both tracks follows the guidelines set by the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation and mirrors the standards of the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, commonly known as ASE, which allows for the students to become certified in several areas, such as drivetrain and electrical systems, while working toward their degree.
Baton Rouge Community College Chancellor Larrisa Littleton-Steib says total enrollment cost for the two-year degree program at the auto center is about $15,000 per student, or about $30,000 less than other noted automotive training academies in the country.
Total enrollment cost for the program is about $15,000 per student, which BRCC Chancellor Larrisa Littleton-Steib says is about $30,000 less than other noted automotive training academies in the country. Guarino says the center can accommodate about 300 students at max capacity, and has the ability to accept about 50 new students each spring and fall semester. He’s hopeful he can attain 100% job placement for graduates.
Students who pursue the diesel track degree will gain experience in servicing engines that run big rigs and barges. Smaller diesel engines, such as the ones auto manufacturers like Cadillac have announced they will soon place in some of their cars and small trucks, will be covered in the regular automotive track. Lane says the skills garnered from both degree tracks should be in high demand for years to come.
“I see a big increase in diesel coming now that they finally figured a way to have diesel pass the EPA (emissions testing),” he says.
Students start the two-year program by taking basic tool, safety and electrical courses during the first semester, along with general math and social science classes. In the second semester, they continue with their classroom instruction but also begin internships at select dealerships in Baton Rouge, where they learn under mentors three days a week.
“They need somebody to work with who can bring them along,” Lane says of the importance of the internship. “It’s just critical to have a mentor.”
18-year-old Calvin Jarrett, who recently graduated from Southern University Laboratory School and is in his second semester at the auto center, says his internships at All-Star Kia and All-Star Nissan are providing him the kind of real-world training that he can’t get in the classroom.
“During the week we’re reconditioning cars,” Jarrett says, “so you see all makes and models.”
Getting more local students and graduates into his local dealerships is a welcome change for McKay, who for years has been recruiting graduates from the Houston area. And even though he provided them free housing and tools, the retention rate for out-of-state workers ended up being about 20%.
“They wanted to go back home,” McKay says. “If we would have gotten a retention rate at 50%, we would have been happy.”
For decades, Baton Rouge auto dealers have looked to schools like the Universal Technical Institute of Texas in Houston, as well as others in Ohio and Tennessee, to hire technicians from certified training centers.
“Many of the companies were actually receiving their employees outside the area,” Littleton-Steib says. “They were going to other states to recruit.”
Frustration with the situation led local auto industry leaders like McKay to approach BRAF and BRCC about a decade ago to begin discussing potential solutions for future job needs. The new auto center represents a public-private partnership, by which area dealers like McKay have provided state-of-the-art equipment and vehicles.
And though the ribbon cutting was just held earlier this month, the new auto training center is already continuing to grow. A sister facility, the Baton Rouge Community College Collision Center, will be built adjacent to the new center. The 20,000-square-foot facility will feature four labs and four classrooms, and is expected to cost roughly $6.5 million, says BRCC Executive Director of Marketing and Public Relations Kizzy Payton. Ground was recently broken on the collision center, and it should be completed in about a year.
Lane says the painters and body technicians who will eventually graduate from the collision center should also have no trouble finding work in the Baton Rouge area.
“There’s just not as many people going into body repair and paint as it used to be,” he says. “It’s getting really hard to find a good body man and painter.”