Staff and students at Portland Community College's General Motors Automotive Service Educational Program are worried that the collapse of the Big Three automakers – Ford Motor Co., Chrysler LLC and especially General Motors – could tank their educational program.
After nearly two months of drawn-out Congressional hearings on the potential bankruptcy of almost the entire U.S. auto industry, negotiations to bail out the automakers were called off last week.
Portland Community College has the largest and longest-standing automotive training program in Oregon. PCC and GM established the educational partnership in 1985 and it is the only learning institution in the state of Oregon that offers GM Automotive Service Educational Program training.
"GM is vital to this partnership," said the program's instructor Scott Morgan. "GM donates the latest vehicles for the training of the students while the local GM dealers supply the jobs for the students to complete their studies."
Students in the GM ASEP program are required to find a job with a company dealer in the local area to continue their studies. Half of the students' earned credit comes from their work at the dealerships.
"The need for qualified and competent service technicians is still very real, but dealerships are getting leaner and meaner," Morgan said in a statement. "The last few months have been very different from what we have experienced in the past. As with the economy as a whole, it is very difficult to find work in the current economic times."
Some students continue to wait for employment.
The school term started in late September, and right now, Morgan said, there are still four students who haven't found a position. Two of those students are Barry Phothong of Southeast Portland and Jeff Paulsen of Hillsboro. Both are in their first terms as GM ASEP students and are taking the classes, but have yet to find a dealership willing to take them on.
"It has been very difficult," Phothong said. "I've been going to a few dealerships and they are very leery about taking anybody on now. It's definitely disheartening because you have no control over it. I need a sponsor to continue in the program because it's required. I keep phoning them and have been asking for part-time work or something Web-based where they don't have to pay me."
While Phothong has been able to keep tabs on a few dealerships and seems encouraged that this line of work will happen for him, Paulsen hasn't been able to get his foot in the door. This is critical because the students in the program learn skills that they need to practice on the job. Without a job, their learning is hampered.
"You feel left out," Paulsen said. "Scott is helping me out by following up with a few of them. But I'll probably have to look for other things to study."
However PCC officials say the Auto Service program is developing new classes on alternative fuel and hybrid cars to meet the new demand for these kinds of vehicles. As automakers change with the times in manufacturing more of these types of cars, the demand for auto service technicians with expertise in this area will grow, too.
The program recently partnered with the Oregon Department of Energy and Columbia-Willamette Clean Cities to host more than 300 area high school students for national Alternative Fuel Vehicle Day at its shop at the Sylvania Campus in Southwest Portland. Hybrids, electric cars and compressed natural gas vehicles were on display. Plus, experts showed how to install electric and compressed natural gas filling stations.
"With the rapid increase in fuel prices, coupled with concerns for the environment and air quality, many Americans are searching for alternatives to gas and diesel fuel transportation," Jones said. "This is the future and we're moving to fill the demand for trained technicians in this field."
Staff says that PCC's Auto Collision Repair program, based at the Rock Creek Campus, hasn't been affected yet by the automaker's woes. The program's chair, Hal Carman, said unlike the auto service area, his program doesn't have a dealer-specific aspect. He said students are getting jobs either as they move through the program or when they graduate.
"Dealerships may not have a body shop and therefore rely on independent body shops to provide collision repair services to people who buy their cars," said Carman. "Our enrollment for the last 20 years has followed the overall economy. If the economy is down, usually our enrollment goes up. But, since we haven't seen anything like the current state of the economy, it's hard to predict how enrollment will be affected."