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Whitestone auto center grooms new generation of tech-savvy workers

THE COURIER/Photo by Eric Jankiewicz

Don’t call these car-loving high school kids grease monkeys.

On Tuesday, students from Thomas Edison High School broke out their laptops to fix a Lexus SUV in a timed competition that pitted them against 12 other high schools in the greater New York area, testing their skills with computers as much as with wrenches.

The event was hosted by the Center for Automotive Education and Training in Whitestone and winners are awarded scholarships for continued education in the auto world. But the center’s bigger goal with such events is to remedy an industry that is facing an aging workforce that isn’t being replenished by a new generation of skilled workers.

“There are more laptops here than there are cars,” said Nick Crispe, a spokesman for the center. “There’s still an engine in there but it’s not the greasy, dirty environment that it used to be.”

Pairs of high school kids rushed from laptops to the cars they were tasked with fixing. The two Thomas Edison High School students Jose Sanchez and Christopher Sookraj hopped between a diagnostics list to their laptop, which was connected to the Lexus that they needed to fix as part of the competition. The event was meant to mimic a modern car dealer shop.

As the technology under a car’s hood continues to look more like a computer’s hardware, the industry’s demand for tech-savvy workers has increased. The old image of a grease-caked mechanic is no longer accurate as cars become more computerized with electric cars and advanced clean-diesel engines.

“I was iffy about this at first,” Sanchez said. “But then I got really into it and now I want to get into this career.”

Even the word mechanic has fallen out of use in the industry for the preferred term, technician. Automotive schools characterize this time period as confusion and the average age of technicians – formerly known as mechanics – is nearing the late 40s in Ford, General Motors and Chrysler Group, according to USA Today.

But Crispe and others believe that as the image of cars in popular culture begins to align itself more closely with technology to become the Smart Car, a new wave of students can be attracted into the industry.

“There was a stigma that stopped the younger generation from joining this area,” Crispe said. “If you love cars and technology this is the perfect career now.”

Thomas Edison’s team didn’t win the competition, but they left the event with new-found inspiration about a career that will be a big part of the future. The winning teamed hailed from Orange-Ulster BOCES in upstate Goshen.

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