SUNDAY EDITION | In need of service techs, Louisville auto dealers turn to JCTC, Southern High
WDRB.com business reporter Chris Otts looks at efforts to train automotive service technicians at Jefferson Community and Technical College and Southern High School.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Alyssa Claycomb decided her career path as a senior at Bullitt Central High School when her government teacher put up a chart showing in-demand and well-paying professions.
Doctor, lawyer, dentist – she had no interest in those. But “automotive technician” caught her eye.
“I was like, hey -- I could totally do that,” Claycomb remembers thinking.
At the time, Claycomb had never so much as changed a vehicle’s oil. And she was only a few months from learning that she was pregnant.
But on Wednesday, Claycomb – now 19 and the mother of a 23-month-old son – peered under the hood of a minivan at Wyler Dixie Honda and began taking apart the engine to replace piston rings.
A year into a special program at Jefferson Community and Technical College, Claycomb is able to take on the 9-hour piston-ring job while others who started working in the dealer’s service department before her haven’t moved beyond oil changes, tire rotations and other basic tasks.
“She does good; it’s nice to see somebody who really wants to learn,” said Rick Fife, a veteran technician who serves as Claycomb’s mentor at Dixie Honda.
Claycomb is among 16 students who are halfway through a two-year program at JCTC -- one that alternates every eight weeks between working at a Louisville-area dealer’s service department and going to school at the community college’s downtown technical campus.
Next year, she’ll graduate with an associate degree in automotive technology, which involves learning the scientific principles behind a vehicle’s operation.
The program began in 2014 with $100,000 in seed funding from the Greater Louisville Automobile Dealers Association, whose members are starved for trained technicians to work in their 67 service departments, said dealers’ association president Scott Roth.
“There is not a dealership in the United States that couldn’t use one or two more techs,” Roth said.
The program promises a path to middle-class wages without a four-year degree and little or no debt.
Upon exiting the program, students can expect to earn in the low $30,000 range as fulltime dealer technicians, said JCTC automotive instructor Stephen Frame, a former Mercedes dealership technician.
That’s about on par with the hourly median wage of $16.51 in the Louisville-Southern Indiana metro area, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Mid-level” dealer technicians earn an average of about $52,000 a year, according to a 2014 National Automobile Dealers Association survey of shops in the southern region.
To be sure, the average “auto service technician and mechanic” in the Louisville metro area earns $36,620 a year, according to government statistics. But Roth said dealership technicians earn more than those at independent shops and oil-change or tire stores.
Fife, who has worked 31 years at Dixie Honda, said an “exceptional” technician make more than $80,000 a year in the commission-based compensation system, which rewards those who work more efficiently. Frame said he “know(s) for a fact” that some earn more than $100,000 a year.
As the community college looks to build a manufacturing and technology center off First Street south of Broadway, it’s also planning to free up space for an expansion of the dealer-ready auto program.
The college plans to move its manufacturing-related disciplines to the new building, which would allow more space for its auto programs on the technical campus at 8th and Chestnut streets.
The dealer-sponsored program currently shares a garage with JCTC’s Toyota “T-Ten” program, a long-established effort to train expert Toyota technicians that draws students from states such as Virginia and Tennessee.
In January, JCTC signed a deal with Honda to start a similar manufacturer-specific program in 2017, said Frame.
If space is freed on the technical campus, “Then all three programs could have our spaces dedicated to everything we need to fully immerse that student in their product,” he said.
Southern High School tie to feed program
The dealer association program has not been without its hiccups, however.
This fall’s entering class has only five students, down from 26 two years ago and 19 last year.
“Certainly everybody is disappointed with the fact that we only have five because the need is much greater,” said Roth, the dealers association president.
Roth blamed turnover at the college – including the retirement of the president and the dean of technical education – for the lack of a bigger class.
Citing declining enrollment, the college laid off 95 faculty and staff members in April, though officials say the dealer-sponsored auto program was not affected.
“We have not done a great job exposing our programs” to public, said Telly Sellars, who became JCTC’s dean of technical education on July 1.
He said the college hopes to create a pipeline of students for the dealer program from Southern High School, which last month announced its own partnership with the Louisville dealers association.
Southern, which has had an auto mechanics magnet program since 1995, has selected 38 freshman and sophomores to a new “GLADA Academy.” In their senior year, the students will be able to spend the second half of their school day working at a dealership, said Principal Bryce Hibbard.
James Wyatt, a former Toyota and Lexus technician who teaches at Southern, visits middle schools to recruit for the program.
“Starting early, it gives them options and we can identify students with that mechanical aptitude,” he said.
Most auto techs lack college training
Among the dozen technicians at Dixie Honda is Joseph Anson, 20, who was among the first 19 graduates of the JCTC-dealer program earlier this year. He immediately moved into a fulltime job and estimated he earns $15 to $20 an hour.
(Because technicians are paid on commission, their earnings can vary widely from day to day depending on how much work comes in the door and how fast they complete the jobs.)
“Joseph is just a gem,” said Brandon Lach, the dealership’s service and parts director.
Anson said he has “no clue” how he would have gotten the job but for the program, estimating it would take him 5 to 10 years to learn the skills he now has.
“I probably would have had to start off doing oil changes and work my way up,” he said.
But unlike Anson, most technicians do not go through a college program to learn the job, and it’s not necessary to be successful. Roth said there are plenty of service managers who never set foot in college.
Lach said the main value of the program is that it helps dealerships like his identify people who are motivated to make the job into a career.
“Once somebody actually takes money out of their pocket for their own future, you know they are serious,” he said.
But the program essentially requires students to sacrifice their full earning power for two years to gain the advanced knowledge and the potential to earn more down the line.
While working their “co-op” in the dealerships, the JCTC students earn $9 an hour, though Roth said the association hopes to increase that to up to $13 an hour depending on each student’s progression and industry certifications.
West Louisville resident Keith King, 39, gave up a $12-per-hour job as a supervisor at a security contractor to start the JCTC program a few weeks ago.
“I was just getting by -- scraping by -- paycheck to paycheck,” said King, a single father of a 13-year-old girl. “I got to a point in my life where I was like, ‘No, that’s not enough. I want to thrive, not survive.”
But King, whose tuition is covered by a federal Pell grant, still has to work odd jobs at a friend’s cleaning service and his family’s tree business to make ends meet while going to school.
Claycomb, who lives with her dad and splits the bills, said she still continues to work at Dixie Honda, even during the 8-week block when she attends class at JCTC, because “even though I am in school, I can’t afford to just not work.”
That means six hours a day at school, followed by six hours or so at the dealership – and very little time with her son Clarkson, who turns 2 this month.
“It’s very tough … by the time I come home, he’s ready for bed,” she said. “I just look at it as, in the long run, I am doing this for him, and he’ll have a better life.”
Find out more about the JCTC program at this page on the school's website. For more information about the Southern High School program, call the school at 502-485-8330.
WDRB.com education reporter Toni Konz contributed to this story. Copyright 2016 WDRB Media. All rights reserved.