Working to fix autos isn't what it used to be

Standing beside a shiny, ruby red Saturn Sky with an audience of high school auto mechanic students, a manager from Lithia Motors detailed the benefits of working as an auto technician for the company's Saturn dealership in Medford.

"Saturn is the only American brand making inroads on the imports," said David Bittner, Saturn fixed operations manager. "That's important to you as technicians because you want to get in with a company that is improving."

In a sagging economy in which pink slips are the order of the day, dealerships' demand for qualified automotive technicians stands as a sharp contrast.

"If I had three times the graduates, I would be able to place them all," said Chris Simper, coordinator of the automotive technology department at Rogue Community College.

That was good news for more than 100 students who turned out Tuesday for Technology Day at North Medford High School, an opportunity for students from Ashland, North Medford, South Medford, Phoenix and South Umpqua high schools to examine career choices. Many of the students are considering automotive repair.

The fair included 10 stations manned by auto technicians and managers from BMW, Dodge, Honda, Nissan, Saturn and Hunter Engineering Co., which showed off some of the car makers' latest vehicle models and talked about the latest technology. Representatives from Rogue Community College, Umpqua Community College and WyoTech School, which has a school in Sacramento, gave an overview of their auto education programs.

A whistle sounded to signal students to switch to the next station, while shiny, sporty cars revved and reverberated through North Medford's auto shop.

South Medford junior Taylor Milligan's mouth was hanging open in fascination as he admired a 2008 silver BMW M3 and listened to technician Matt Duncan describe trying to solve software problems in the latest models. The M3 has nearly 60 computers inside it to operate features such as sensor locks that unlock when the car detects the key in the owner's pocket or handbag.

"I'm amazed at the kind of stuff it has," Milligan said. "I'm going to get one of these one day."

The training to become an auto technician has become more and more advanced, Simper said.

"People who just want to take things apart and put them back together aren't going to survive in this industry," Simper said. "There is a lot more book learning involved than there used to be."

RCC students can transfer an associates' degree in auto technology to Weber University in Utah to obtain a four-year degree in the subject.

Students also can earn up to 14 college credits from RCC for passing automotive classes at their high schools, said Tim Ponzoha, North Medford auto instructor. The credits are free and give students a start on their associate's degree before ever leaving high school, Ponzoha said.

High school students typically work on donated vehicles. The newest one at North Medford is a 1996 Ford. Tuesday's event was a good way for students to see the newer technology, Ponzoha said.

Bittner said Saturn technicians this year are required to take 100 training sessions to stay up to date on technology. The sessions can last anywhere from one hour to a full day, he said.

For instance, a Saturn technician in Medford attended a course Tuesday about the OnStar safety device in General Motors vehicles. Some of the vehicles automatically contact an emergency center when the car is in an accident. In other models, drivers activate the device with a button on the rear view mirror.

"The point I'm hoping to make is when they're choosing who to go to work for they make sure it's someone who keeps training them, keeps them current and brings in new clientele," Bittner said.

"You have to know a lot," said Phoenix High sophomore Jared Loper. "Some of the tools they use to check what's going on with cars, the computers, are complicated."

Loper said he wants to be a diesel mechanic, working primarily on semitrailers and pickups.

"It helped to know what I need to do in the future to get where I want to go," he said.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or

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