Computer

High school robotics programs could be a pipeline for auto mechanics

Patrick Sassine, service adviser at Vic Canever Chevrolet in Fenton, Mich., northwest of Detroit, looks at the store’s aging technician work force and worries.

“Our work force is 50-plus” years old, he told Fixed Ops Journal. “They are at the end of their careers, and we don’t see anything coming in, no young talent. You can find people to do brakes and to do oil changes but not to work on computer modules.”

To run the service department in the era of battery-electric vehicles and self-driving technology, “you have to have the skills,” he says.

Currently, Canever has just one tech certified to work on the Chevrolet Volt and Bolt, and the store could use more.

But Sassine knows about a potential pipeline for techs with advanced electronics skills that may not have dawned on other service directors.

We’ve heard stories of dealers who have scooped up tech-savvy employees from retail stores’ electronics departments, or who have “grown their own” by starting them in the lube lane fresh out of high school and moving them up. Those are good strategies — for today. But here’s one for the near future: Nearly every school district in the nation has at least one high school with a FIRST Robotics team. FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — is the perfect program for new-car dealers to support and use as a recruiting tool.

Each year, FIRST school teams around the country build battery-powered, self-driving robots that compete in raucous competitions held in gyms and arenas in front of cheering parents, students and sponsors. The robots must perform complex tasks, such as climbing a wall or shooting balls repeatedly through a hoop. Each FIRST team has engineers, computer programmers, welders, electricians, fabricators and troubleshooters.

Sassine has seen firsthand what these kids — including his son — can do: He’s a mentor for the Fenton Titanium Tigers. And Canever is a sponsor.

Because of the pandemic, the 2020 team didn’t visit the dealership as in years past. As soon as it is safe again, the Titanium Tigers will visit Canever and the service department, Sassine says. He wants to plant the seed that a car dealership is a place where technicians can work on cutting-edge electronics.