The job fell in his lap.
In April, Jaime Diaz, 22, was working as a tire technician at America’s Tire, in Signal Hill, and taking classes in Long Beach City College’s automotive technology program when an instructor referred him for a job in Carson.
At first, Diaz didn’t think he was qualified for the job — an apprentice technician at Professional Auto Tech. But a day after he applied, he got an interview. He’s worked there since.
“I just got lucky,” Diaz said.
But his luck represents a general need in the area. As the country faces a national labor shortage and driving remains a necessary part of life in most areas of the nation — but particularly Southern California — the Long Beach area and beyond has struggled to meet the demand for automotive technicians, those in the automobile industry say.
Technicians and mechanics are needed to maintain brakes, fix engines and buff out dents, but local dealers and college professors say there just aren’t enough workers to do that hands-on work.
Right now, new cars are more expensive than ever, meaning more people are driving their old cars for longer, said Danny Tan, an automotive technology professor at Long Beach City College. The longer a car is on the road, the more maintenance issues it faces, he added.
A supply shortage of computer chips has worsened the supply of new cars, according to the Associated Press. The AP also reported that some analysts have predicted the price of new, used and rental cars may not come back down until 2023.
And companies across the nation still aren’t filling millions of open jobs, the AP reported, so there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.
The automotive technician industry also appears to be among the most stable, in terms of jobs, over the next decade, during which technology and changing consumer habits could shift the employment landscape in other fields.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, projects virtually no change in automotive technician and mechanic jobs through 2030, with about 69,000 openings expected annually nationwide.
And that is especially true in car-loving California, which had the highest number of automotive technician and mechanic jobs in the country — at nearly 59,400 — as of May 2020, according to BLS data.
These are also good-paying jobs, with California boasting the highest annual mean wage of any state for those workers, at $54,540 a year, BLS data shows.
That makes the automotive technician industry fertile ground for community colleges in the state during a time when there’s been renewed focus on career education and trade schooling. The California Community Colleges, which says it is the largest provider of workforce training in the world, has made further boosting such schooling one of its main missions for the future.
“Our Vision for Success calls for significantly boosting the number of students completing career education programs who find a job in their field,” the California Community Colleges’ website says, “while also increasing the number of students annually who earn associate degrees, credentials, certificates or acquire the skill sets needed for an in-demand job.”
Local car dealerships in Long Beach illustrate the demand for such careers: They have sought to recruit young, fresh blood — like Diaz — by investing in their education.
In October, for example, LBCC’s Automotive Technology program received an unsolicited $10,000 grant from the Greater Los Angeles New Car Dealers Association to fund new scholarships, pay for new equipment and provide tools for recent graduates.
Cerritos College in Norwalk also received a $10,000 grant in October; in February, Citrus College in Azusa got that grant, too.
“There’s a reason you see dealer associations funding training programs,” said Nick Worthington, the president of Long Beach’s Worthington Ford, “because they’re desperate to find new mechanics.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic even happened, Worthington said, competition to hire new technicians had already been fierce among dealerships and auto shops. The coronavirus made the competition even stiffer, so they’ve had to offer more competitive wages to fight for new workers.
And some of those employees have come from LBCC, he added.
LBCC’s automotive training center is at its Pacific Coast Campus. There are seven bays where, on a brisk Thursday morning in November, auto tech students worked on the brakes of new Toyotas, Hyundais and BMWs, registered cars that are owned by the school.
The students, at the time, were about two months into the semester, so they could already do a lot of the work on their own.
As if by routine, they took off the wheels. Then, they cleaned the brakes. And all the while, professor Tan walked around the bay, watching to see if anyone needed help.
He donned a short-sleeve, button-down shirt with “Master Technician” written on the shoulders. He, like his students, wore safety goggles around his eyes. A black surgical mask covered his mouth.
At one point, Tan heard a student tell classmates, “I think we stripped a nut.” So he went over to help out.
Tan loves cars. He drives a 400 horsepower Nissan Titan — his third — and he’s worked in the auto industry since 1984 as a mechanic, shop owner, painter and body technician. He also used to own DT Auto in Long Beach.
But he loves teaching, too.
“I lived through the war,” he said, referencing the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s. “I was kept alive by the man upstairs and maybe I can help others find their passion.”
And that he does. Or at least, Tan said, he tries to.
As students go through LBCC’s auto tech program, Tan tries to connect them with jobs so they can start working as soon as possible.
Lately, he said, that’s been easier. As the coronavirus continues weighing down the economy, local dealerships and auto shops have been calling him, asking if he can send them any recent graduates.
“Our students have no problems finding jobs,” Tan said.
Diaz, one such student, now changes motor oil and rotates tires at Professional Auto Tech. And recently, he’s been learning how to do more difficult work, such as changing axels or replacing something known as differential fluid.
One of his instructors at LBCC, Enrique Davalos, referred him for that job. Diaz only had experience changing tires at the time he interviewed with the Carson company, so he didn’t think he would get it.
“I thought my skills were limited,” Diaz said. “The boss was looking for an apprentice and LBCC helped me get it.”
It’s an entry-level job, but he makes more money than he did at America’s Tire and, at just under $20 an hour, he makes more than he could at a retail job and more than some jobs that require a four-year degree.
But he knows more money will come.
Diaz finished the basic mechanic program at Cerritos College and is currently taking specialized classes at LBCC to learn more about electric vehicles and diesel engines, hoping that will help him earn a higher-paying job as he gains more experience.
Another student, Kiara Lunsford, went through the LBCC auto tech program from 2018 to 2020. During the pandemic, she ended up moving to Indianapolis to be closer to her brother.
But when she got there last year, Lunsford said, she got a job almost immediately.
First, she got work as a painter at a body shop, then she got a job as a service advisor at the local Toyota dealer. She’s not working as a technician; instead, she meets the customers and writes up the tickets. But with her background from LBCC, Lunsford said, she’s able to explain to customers how their car is being serviced.
“It’s nice to have the background to be able to answer questions,” the 22-year-old said.
Still, she’s loved cars her whole life and was excited to get a job so quickly. And Toyota has her help out on repairs that require small hands, Lunsford added. Lunsford said she hopes to move into a full-time technician role soon.
But Diaz and Lunsford like getting their hands dirty.
Not everyone has such an affinity. So the nature of these jobs may contribute to the current shortage in the industry, said Joe Mulleary, the chair of the automotive mechanical repair department at Cerritos College.
There’s not much interest from high schoolers to enter the industry, Mulleary said, under the pretense that it’s a “dirty job” or because of the false notion that you don’t need to be smart to do it.
Mulleary’s colleague, collision repair instructor Tony Chisum, said some high schools focus on getting their students to four-year universities, rather than getting them interested in trade work. But with enough experience, these jobs can pay well.
Technician jobs can pay top dollar if you stay in the industry, Worthington said, especially with today’s competitive wages. Some of his technicians make six figures, he added.
One technician at the Lexus of Cerritos, for example, makes $285,000 a year, said General Manager Jake Kahen.
And if there aren’t enough workers, both Kahen and Worthington said, they have to either train current employees who aren’t technicians or hire workers with no experience — and teach them on the job.
Hopefully, Kahen said, by investing in local schools like LBCC and Cerritos, more students can come through the pipeline.
If so, it will benefit community colleges and car dealerships alike.
The relationship, Kahen said, is symbiotic.