More than six months after it was launched into space, Elon Musk’s bright red Tesla Roadster with “Starman: at the wheel continued to zoom across the galaxy at an estimated 2,246 miles per hour. It had exceeded its 36,000-mile warranty more than 7,800 times over. And if the growing shortage of auto mechanics and technicians continues, earthbound customers seeking repairs and service for their increasingly high-tech vehicles could feel as lonely as Starman while they wait for service scheduling with a shrinking pool of qualified technicians.
“I talk to lots of shop owners. They don’t have problems getting applicants, but they do have problems getting qualified applicants,” said Gerald Sartin, PTC automotive technology program director and instructor. “The average age of an auto technician right now is about 50 years old. There will be a huge demand in the future for qualified technicians. We are trying to meet those needs with the younger generation.”
And while some of his students may not be particularly impressed by the program’s recent accreditation from the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation (NATEF), industry veterans take note. NATEF accreditation is an exhaustive process requiring onsite evaluation by outside experts.
“They send in an evaluation team to come in and assess our program,” Sartin explained. They leave no carburetor unturned. After conducting its thorough evaluation, NATEF recommended PTC for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certification. Departments of education in all 50 states support ASE certification of automotive programs to ensure that training programs meet or exceed industry-recognized standards of excellence. “We are very proud of completing this process and being able to meet the high standards required by ASE and NATEF.”
What makes PTC’s ASE-certified program different from others that are similarly accredited? “We provide a more personal setting. We don’t focus on any specific make or manufacturer of vehicle,” Sartin said. “We transfer knowledge on any make or model from America or Europe.”
Students in the PTC program learn in an environment that is as close to a real-world automotive shop as possible, Sartin added. They create repair orders, look up parts and labor, diagnose problems and practice one-on-one communication with customers. “This program can prepare students for a position at any dealership or shop,” he said.
Automotive Technology Instructor Bill King concurs, and he should know ― before coming to PTC, he worked as service manager at a local dealership for 14 years. And for many years prior to that, he himself worked as an auto service technician.
“As a former service manager, I know the quality of worker they are looking for in potential employees,” King said. “My job is to make it real for our students. … They need to look at their schooling just like a job.”
All students in the program are invited to join the Full Throttle Club, which facilitates educational activities outside of the classroom. Members may go on automotive factory tours or salvage yards.
“They learn and really get enthusiastic about this industry,” Sartin said. “One student found an exhaust manifold for a Jeep at salvage yard. He actually found a vehicle he could remove the part from. It was a high-performance part. He Googled it on his phone at the time and discovered that it normally would cost $300, and he got it for less than $20. He was ecstatic. … Many of our students are intrigued and amazed.”
An advisory board of experts regularly evaluates the program’s curriculum to ensure it reflects the current needs of the industry. And essential “soft skills” are not neglected.
“In this industry, there is a lot of diversity, a lot of different types of people,” Sartin noted. “We want our students to receive experience working with people who are different from them” and to hone their teamwork, listening and communication skills.
Automotive technicians in today’s world, at a minimum, also must have some computer literacy.
“Years past, all service information was in manuals and books. Now it’s all online,” Sartin explained. “You do have to have computer knowledge. All of our test work and textbooks are online. Students will be asked to use a computer more than they ever have in the automotive industry.”
Planets Align for PTC Graduate’s Small Automotive Business
Every once in a while, you might find Jason Cooley gazing at the stars from his auto repair and custom suspension business in Cross Hill. The business day ends at 6 p.m., but that’s often when the big projects receive uninterrupted attention. The hours he puts in are his prerogative.
“I have actually stayed here all night long and watched the sun come up over the cow pasture the next morning,” Cooley said. “If a customer needs it done in a day, even if it’s a two-day job, I will get it done.”
Cooley is a 2015 automotive technology program graduate of Piedmont Tech.
King remembers Cooley well. “He was a second-year student when I started at PTC. Jason was a very enthusiastic student. He was not scared to get his hands dirty,” King said. “He was very attentive with his studies. I could see his motivation.”
About three weeks before graduation, Cooley learned of a job opportunity with a Chrysler dealership in Greenville. He applied, was hired and worked there for about a year after receiving his degree. But destiny was quietly calling. It began when Cooley’s father told him about an available property on three acres of land in Cross Hill and suggested he forge out on his own.
“My dad kept pushing me to do it,” Cooley recalled. “I was scared, just like everyone.” It was hard to walk away from a steady, substantial paycheck and take on the risk of owning his own business.
Cooley took the plunge in 2016 ― opening JC’s Auto Repair and Custom Suspension ― and hasn’t looked back.
“We built out the shop, poured the concrete. It was so empty at first, but within six months, we ran out of room for everything,” he said. Now that he owns his own shop, Cooley realizes that Automotive Technology Program Director Sartin actually did know a thing or two. “Before I went to Piedmont Tech, I thought I knew everything about cars. I really did. Once I got in the program, I realized I didn’t know half of what I needed to know. … Gerald knew what he was talking about. The (PTC) program was really hands on. … Now I know.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. The first year or so was a challenge, just as it is for any new business venture. Cooley endured a great deal of stress operating solo.
“For the first year and a half, I was all by myself. I was doing three to four (suspension) lift kits a week by myself. I had to close up the business whenever I had to pick up a part or take vehicles out on the road. There was no one to mind the store. … After a year and a half, I hired someone.” That someone is Shaun Pierce, who also attended PTC. So now Cooley not only is a business owner but an employer as well. Someday, when his business expands further, Cooley says he likely will turn to PTC for recruits because he knows the program’s quality firsthand.
“Gerald tried to make the auto shop as much like a real business as possible,” he recalled. “You had to watch what you did and what you said. Wear your safety goggles. Don’t leave any greasy handprints. It had a real workplace feel. That’s important.”
Smart decisions also go a long way, and Cooley took advantage of a great offer to grow his business.
“I did so many lift kits, eventually my supplier made me an authorized dealer of their lift kits,” he said. “That was a big boost for my business.” Subsequently, Cooley is always on the lookout for similar opportunities, from lift kits to tires.
Cooley said he couldn’t have come this far without support and advice from his wife, Holly, who owns a successful hair salon in Greenwood.
“Owning a business is great,” he said. “I feel successful.”