For high school students adept at working on cars, the National Automotive Technology Competition is a chance to show their stuff.
Four area seniors – on two teams, with two members each – will compete Tuesday and Wednesday in New York City, with the New York International Auto Show as the backdrop. Thirty teams from around the United States and Canada are entered, with $3 million worth of prizes and scholarships at stake for the students and their schools.
The big stage and prizes make the competition compelling. But the students’ instructors, auto-dealer groups and event organizers see a much bigger picture: a chance to stoke students’ interest in careers such as automotive technology and develop future talent.
The Niagara Frontier Automobile Dealers Association (NFADA) and its local partners, including Erie Community College and auto dealers and other businesses, have been boosters of the competition for years. At the regional finals in January, a team from the Orleans-Niagara BOCES Niagara Center – Dan Ruble and Kyle Jung – finished first and earned a spot in the national finals, representing the NFADA.
The runner-up team from Burgard High School – David Thie and River Saxbury – is also going to the finals, representing the New York State Auto Dealers Association in Albany, which did not have its own entry. The high finish was a breakthrough for Burgard, which has a long tradition in vocational education but had never made the finals. The school has taken notice of the team’s accomplishment.
“All of the teachers are always congratulating us,” Saxbury said.
A team from Western New York has never won the national competition but has finished as high as third. Local supporters are upbeat about this year’s local entries, but they say regardless of how the two teams place, reaching the finals is a major achievement that should open doors for the students.
“When they go to work and that’s on their resume, 90 percent of the [dealership] service managers around here know what it means,” said John Domagala, who serves on the NFADA’s Auto Tech Committee. “They’re looking at that, and they’re saying to themselves, ‘This looks good, this sounds good.’ ”
Domagala should know. He built a career in the industry, after growing up as a self-described “hot-rod kid.” The 1950 Burgard graduate said he and his classmates are especially proud that a team from their alma mater is in the finals.
“These guys feel like I do, too: ‘Hey, maybe we’ve got a chance to shine,’ ” Domagala said.
The National Automotive Technology Competition uses a points system to judge the students on their abilities to perform tasks at work stations and to repair problems planted in their assigned vehicles, within a time limit. The competitors must follow proper diagnostic procedures, just as they would in a service department.
The national competition can get intense, but the event at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center is only a part of the story.
Auto dealers and other supporters helped nine two-member teams from area schools prepare for the regional competition held in January at ECC’s Vehicle Technology Training Center in Orchard Park. The Ford Dealers of Western New York sponsored this year’s regional event; each team was matched with a Ford dealership to prepare to work on an F-150 for that round.
“Our dealers do a good job,” Domagala said. “We don’t have a problem going into the dealerships and asking them to train the kids.”
At the national finals, a variety of auto brands will be in the mix. The Orleans-Niagara team will work on a Subaru Legacy, and the Burgard team will work on a Mercedes-Benz E350. The students partnered with Mercedes-Benz of Buffalo and Northtown Subaru to prepare.
The local finalists have family members who have worked in the auto industry. “It kind of runs in the family, I guess,” said Ruble, from the Orleans-Niagara BOCES team. And Thie enjoys getting things repaired and running again.
Event supporters say just participating in the regional or national rounds pays dividends for the students, by building their confidence, connecting them with industry professionals, and exposing them to career options. “Our employment department is always getting requests from dealers for techs,” said Paula Battistella, who serves on the NFADA’s Auto Tech Committee.
Some dealers want to hire experienced technicians; the NFADA tries to encourage them to consider up-and-comers to fill openings, too.
“The way we look at it, we’re going to give you a kid that has potential,” Domagala said. “You have to bring it out of them.”
ECC is a local focal point for automotive education, with its training center in Orchard Park. Ed Szczepanski, professor of automotive technology, said there is strong student interest in ECC’s automotive programs. Some of the programs are tied in directly with Chrysler and Ford, giving participating students a combination of classroom learning and work experience at a dealership.
What students earn once they graduate from high school and get a job as an auto tech varies widely, depending on how much experience and education they walk in with, and what dealerships pay. The state Department of Labor says in Western New York, the 3,520 workers it classified as auto service technicians and mechanics earned a median salary of $33,290.
The pay can go much higher than that as employees move up the career ladder.
“You can start as a tech and then you can work your way up to a service manager and just work your way up from there,” Ruble said. “You can go a lot of places with it.”
Jung, his teammate, said he is interested in going to college for an auto diesel program and becoming a dealer technician, perhaps for a BMW dealership.
Frank Downing Jr., president of Towne Automotive Group, said Towne dealerships have technicians who have moved up from entry-level positions to their current jobs.
Bob Voss, an instructor in Burgard’s program, said going to the national finals builds the school’s reputation, as it pursues national certification for its auto education program. “We’re right on the verge of being certified, and this is certainly going to help us,” he said.
Voss said he is impressed with the strides the Burgard program has made. And the work for the students is by no means easy: he noted the vehicle they have trained on, the Mercedes-Benz E350, is “probably one of the most electronically complicated vehicles on the market.”
Saxbury, from the Burgard team, said he is looking forward to competing in New York City. “To be honest, I didn’t expect to place in the (regional) competition, so anything from here is a bonus.”