YBOR CITY — His hands are blackened from toiling on the underbelly of a '98 Toyota 4Runner. Smudges of dirt mark his face. But an ear-to-ear grin reveals Sean Smith is doing something he loves.
Smith, 20, had an associate's degree from State College of Florida and was en route to getting a bachelor's degree in psychology when boredom struck. "I'm more of a hands-on person than sitting and learning," he said.
So he shifted gears, signing up for a relatively new, 18-month auto mechanic training program at Hillsborough Community College. Smith, who grew up watching his dad work on four-wheelers and dirt bikes in a backyard shop, says he's being driven by passion.
That there is surging demand in his dream job is just a bonus.
Mechanics — or, more specifically, auto technicians, given the increasing complexity of computerized parts — never really experienced the Great Recession. Certainly not to the degree of other trades like construction.
"They've been in demand, and they continue to be in even greater demand . . . and Florida especially is red hot," said Marc Cannon, a spokesman for AutoNation, which is building bigger service bays to handle an expanding repair business.
Florida's unemployment rate is still a woeful 9 percent. But dealers and repair shops are as hungry as ever for skilled technicians.
In fact, online job search firm indeed.com has seen an increase in the past two years in mechanic and body shop postings. The term "maintenance mechanic" is "consistently one of the most in-demand jobs," said Indeed spokesman Teig Lynster.
Regional online job postings are peppered with such openings. Pepsi wants a mechanic to help service its Tampa fleet at night. Goodyear Tire and Rubber in Riverview, CarMax in Tampa, and various Tires Plus locations are all looking for technicians.
Mark Vitner, senior economist with Wells Fargo Securities, said mechanics, air conditioning technicians and building engineers almost always seem to be in short supply. "This may be even more relevant today," he said, "as many households and businesses have put off replacing HVAC systems and automobiles for some time, and many units and vehicles are now quite old."
The shortage is exacerbated by the number of technicians retiring and the followup training required to stay current on evolving technology and computer systems that vary by car make and model.
Politicians and economists alike repeatedly stress that college grads in general have a much lower unemployment rate than those with a high school degree.
"But a four-year college degree is not for everyone," Vitner said. "Community colleges and technical schools typically provide more bang for the buck and also have a better track record of quickly matching up with the changing needs in the labor market because of the shorter time to complete training programs."
The pay scale, as well, often surprises people. Established mechanics can make $60,000 a year. A specialized mechanic at a Mercedes dealership could earn $80,000; some make more than $100,000.
Experience and speed are key to a big payout. Many repair jobs typically charge a flat rate for labor based on the estimated time a job will take; mechanics who make repairs faster have potential to make more. If they can finish a five-hour rated job in two hours, for instance, they more than double their take.
But even newcomers who just received their ASE certification and aren't on flat rate can make decent money.
"If you're a first-year kid out of vocational school going to a dealership and you can work hard and make $30,000 a year, that's a hell of a lot better than a lot of college kids are doing who can't find a job," said Cannon of AutoNation. "And here, you're almost guaranteed a job."
The dual combination of available jobs and solid pay has lured back high school vocational programs and community colleges, some of which de-emphasized training of mechanics and other trades for years.
As academic dean of associate science programs at Hillsborough Community College, Jack Evans has been at the vanguard of the renaissance.
In 2000, Evans began HCC's auto training program with classes on collision repair out of a garage in Ybor City. In 2006, HCC bought a former refrigeration company near 56th Street and Columbus Drive and, with the aid of a matching federal Economic Development Administration grant, created a $3.2 million auto service center lab.
The auto collision repair program was joined in 2010 with the inaugural class of 17 auto mechanics-in-training, a group that just graduated in December.
Before joining HCC 17 years ago, Evans spent 30 years in the Marine Corps. In leading recruitment efforts in Virginia, he prided himself on having one of the lowest attrition rates in the country among recruits.
"I learned how important it was to make sure you're picking the right person," he said. The same principle applies here, be it in picking instructors or fitting students into careers that match their personalities and aptitudes.
Students may start repairing dented fenders but find they're better suited at detail work. Or painting. Or damage appraisals. There are 27 different trades tied in to auto repair to consider.
"They find themselves here," Evans said.
The complex doubles as home to HCC's police and fire training courses. Evans tries to make best use of the overlap.
Take, for instance, the college's recurring purchase of Crown Victorias that police cadets use to practice high-speed chases in a course on the 22-acre grounds.
After the vehicles get banged up, they're shipped to either the collision workshop or, after more severe internal damage, the mechanic bays for students to work on. If a vehicle is beyond repair, fire fighting trainees take over, torching the car to practice putting it out.
The firefighters are in a 20,000-square-foot building in the rear of the complex. The main, 40,000-square-foot building is filled with vehicles under various states of repair along with classrooms. But they're not your typical classrooms. In the transmission room, students break down and rebuild transmissions, testing for defaults without having to put the transmissions in a vehicle. In the isolated — and well-ventilated — engine room, the temperature of rebuilt engines can hit 1,200 degrees as they're revved up.
Graduates of HCC's mechanics and collision programs aren't guaranteed a job. But the track record is pretty close. Some have drifted in other directions after starting the course, "but every student that wanted a job, we had a job for them," Evans said.
Gesturing toward a dozen students working on cars during a recent class, Evans said: "These guys will all be hired when they graduate. Most of them are already working part-time now."
Chris Luciano, a December graduate, is doing a little bit of both. In the afternoons, the 19-year-old Apollo Beach resident works for Sears Automotive handling basic jobs like replacing alternators; in the morning, he helps HCC with a class of 32 students.
"This is great," Luciano said. "It's a constant learning experience."
Historically, one of the obstacles to a career as an auto technician is buying the tools to get started. Most shops expect you to bring your own.
HCC's solution was to lease students tool boxes, a $1,200 value, as part of tuition and fees. (The collision program costs about $6,000, compared to nearly $9,000 for the technician program.) Upon graduation, they take the tool box with them. That gives them an incentive to take care of their own tools, locking up at the end of class.
During orientation, Evans encourages students to bring in their parents for "buy-in," especially those parents who have been tethered to the idea that a four-year college degree is the only way to go.
One sign that more people are buying in: Both training programs already have waiting lists for the next sessions in the fall, 42 signed up for the next technician group and 27 for collision.
Meanwhile, Evans is looking toward the next growth area.
The school plans to launch a welding program in January. Then, if funding comes through, Evans has part of the old refrigeration site earmarked to teach sheet metal fabrication.
"The Tampa airport needs sheet metal fabricators just like the (Tampa) port needs more welders," he said. "We're going to keep growing."
Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or [email protected]