Under the hood
Clark’s T-TEN Toyota technician training exceeds business expectations, grads land good-paying jobs
By Shelby Sebens
Veteran professional auto technicians can spend years, even decades, trying to pass a series of advanced industry tests to gain their Automotive Service Excellence certifications that put them ahead of their peers in the workforce.
It took Clark College student Irvin Ortega less than two years.
In fact, Ortega’s skill level is so advanced because of his education that he can diagnose and address problems at the same or higher level than the employees he worked with during his internship at a local dealership.
“It’s kind of weird to see the difference between somebody like us and somebody that came off the street that has years of experience, but we’re still right up there with them,” Ortega said, adding his skill level is at or above many of the tenured technicians he works with.
Ortega, who graduated in June 2015 from the Toyota Technician Training and Education Network program (T-TEN) at Clark College, passed nine certification tests, including one of the toughest – the L1 test – that focuses on auto diagnostics.
“The L1 test is considered the crown,” Dave Griffin, shop foreman at McCord’s Vancouver Toyota where Ortega interned, said. “We’ve got technicians who have been technicians for 20 years who struggle with the test. It’s not an easy thing, but it means that you’re up-to-date on what’s currently in the marketplace. Basic auto technology hasn’t changed, but the advanced technology has.”
Ortega’s success can be attributed, at least in part, to recent improvements in Clark’s T-TEN program. About two years ago, the college became the first college in the Pacific Northwest to achieve accreditation in Toyota’s rigorous training program.
“The process that Clark completed is intended to raise the level of the quality of training that’s occurring at the institutions that we’re partnering with,” said Rick Lester, Toyota’s technician development manager.
A second regional automotive dealership reached an agreement with Clark College to launch a program similar to Toyota’s T-TEN.
T-TEN has existed at Clark for about 20 years, but the recently revamped Toyota T-TEN training program is already showing positive results, according to Toyota and Clark officials.
“Ortega is a trailblazer in the industry,” McCord’s service manager Kerrie Keesee said, noting that Ortega was the first graduate of the newly revamped T-TEN program at Clark and the first to pass all of the Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) tests.
“They’re like the cream of the crop, the technicians who have this education,” Keesee said.
Ortega performed jobs at Toyota as an intern that traditionally only technicians of a high caliber performed, such as diagnostic work on hybrids and recall orders, where he found out what caused it and fixed the problem, according to Keesee.
Clark College’s program prepares students for the highest level of technician work, according to Mike Godson, Clark’s Automotive Technology instructor. A large portion of the hands-on coursework focuses on learning diagnostics. Students have to figure out the problems and question why the issue even occurred in the first place.
“It’s not just discovering that a head gasket is no good, it’s determining what caused it to go bad,” he said.
In 2008, Toyota started looking at its T-TEN programs across the country as the vehicle manufacturer struggled to hire qualified technicians fresh out of college.
“They discovered many problems that needed to be addressed,” Godson said.
Toyota worked with colleges to develop new standards and curriculum that matched what the industry sought. Having a thorough understanding of all electrical components of an automobile, for example, and not simply components like lighting or audio, was revised.
“Any system that they touch has some electrification to it and they need to understand basic principles,” Lester said.
New accreditation standards for colleges were announced by Toyota in 2010.
Toyota worked with colleges to create a network in which instructors share ideas and address concerns. “Some institutions survived. Some did not,” Godson said.
“It’s important to remember this is a partnership. Toyota doesn’t just give us everything we ask for. We respond to what the community needs and what is in the best interest of our students,” Godson said.
Advancing students to the level that Toyota and other dealers in the region want takes time.
“Educating students is like growing pineapples. It takes two years to grow a single pineapple. I can’t grow you a pineapple in a month or two,”
~ Mike Godson
Lester likens the program to building a product. With T-TEN, the dealer is Toyota’s customer, the college is the manufacturing plant and the student is the product.
That product is in high demand and the customer expects contemporary service and results.
“We’re trying to train and equip students to be as successful as possible when they enter the dealership as entry-level technicians,” Lester said.
And higher education institutions can’t graduate them fast enough. Furthermore, it’s no surprise that the automotive industry expects qualified technicians. Lester hears it all the time as he travels the county meets dealers from Toyota, Ford and Chrysler.
“Without exception everybody is saying they’re struggling to find enough job-ready service technicians for their dealerships,” he said.
Sonic Automotive Inc. hired 157 technicians in the past year and plans to hire 400 more in the next year, according to Automotive News. And, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, automotive service technician jobs are expected to increase by more than 60,000 positions between 2012 and 2022.
“Clark students can make an average of $10 an hour when they start their internships through the program,” said Jason Crone, automotive instructor, T-TEN coordinator and recruiter. Crone sets students up with jobs at dealerships across Oregon and Washington before they begin the T-TEN program. By the end of the second year in the program, students often earn up to $18 an hour.
The goal of the program is to train students to become master technicians, who make $26 to $28 an hour and advance to senior master technicians who can earn $80,000 to $120,000 a year, according to Crone.
“This is a career with massive growth potential,” he said.
Nearly 75 percent of the students make it through the program, according to Crone, and those who don’t often find work as technicians at dealerships.
Enrollment in the first year of the newly adapted Toyota T-TEN program was sluggish, with only four students. The following year, 12 students took courses. For the fall, 22 are ready start and more could be added, according to Crone.
“There are a number of reasons for the slower start,” Godson said. “A pretty high bar is set to be employable, which means students must pass a drug screening test and have a clean driving record.” For some dealers, students cannot even have a speeding ticket on their record.
Back in the classroom at Clark—which is a six-vehicle bay, students are attempting to start a Toyota Highlander but it continues to stall before it sputters to a stop.
Part of the class includes diagnosing what’s wrong with the vehicle and completing an exercise that is known as the “Customer Concern, Cause and Remedy,” according to Godson. Instructors deliberately test students by installing faults into vehicles. In fact, in the last three years, instructors have placed more than 400 unique faults in 30 cars.
Toyota replaces the vehicles that Clark students learn on with newer models every five years.
Internships key to job
In addition to classroom and hands-on automotive shop time, students spend part of their learning process in paid internships at various Toyota and Lexus dealerships in the area.
The internship oftentimes results in a job offer at the dealerships and the opportunity to quickly move upper employment levels.
“When they’re done with their Clark degree, they have moved beyond the entry-level spot,” Godson said. Students earn an associate degree in Applied Technology when they complete the two-year program.
The program has 100 percent job placement for those who complete the program and even those who don’t often find work at dealerships at a lower level, Crone said.
T-Ten graduate Irvin Ortega moved from fixing problems to diagnosing what causes issues in automobiles shortly before graduating. The transition was easy for him.
“I’ve always been naturally curious,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to see how things work and why things go wrong rather than just fixing them.”
The relationship between the car industry and Clark is a shining star in the region. Strengthening the curriculum and placing graduates in jobs will continue to be the priority. McCord’s Vancouver Toyota, in collaboration with other regional dealerships and Clark officials, work together on an advisory committee that emphases recruitment. Inviting full-time employed technicians like Ortega to help with recruitment ideas is yet another plus.
Shelby Sebens is a freelance journalist in Portland, Ore. She writes for Reuters and various local media outlets. In her decade as a reporter, she has covered state and local government, hurricanes and breaking news. She also teaches digital journalism at Clark College and has a master’s in public affairs reporting.