Steven Liu bent over the engine, leaning beneath the open hood of an S 550 model 2015 Mercedes.
A technician at Mercedes-Benz of Marietta, Liu was examining a vehicle that sells for about $120,000 — roughly twice the median household income in metro Atlanta — and is equipped with all manner of Mercedes technology.
There was a problem with one key component this humid and hot afternoon in July.
“The air conditioning isn’t working,” said Liu, 26.
On an average workday, the dealership handles roughly 45 vehicles needing maintenance and repair. It’s a lot of work, which is why the dealership staff includes 22 technicians.
But so far only Liu has been through Mercedes DRIVE, an apprenticeship program that graduates about 200 technicians a year from four locations including Jacksonville, where Liu was trained.
A number of companies complain about a shortage of skilled, blue collar workers. Yes, they say, the get applicants, but not people who can do the job right.
Critics have said those words sometimes ring hollow.
For one thing, there are more than 147,000 unemployed workers in metro Atlanta now who are actively looking for a job, according to the state Labor Department’s latest report last week.
That doesn’t include thousands of working-age people who are not in the labor force.
Critics have argued that – if companies were truly beset by a shortage – they would either pay more to poach workers from other firms or they would set up training programs to upgrade skills of new hires.
Mercedes says it is doing both.
There are about 12,600 auto technicians and mechanics in metro Atlanta, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Average annual pay is a little less than $40,000.
Entry-level technicians start around that figure, according to company spokeswoman Donna Boland. A senior, experience technician can make more than twice that amount, Mercedes said.
Students coming out of the DRIVE program who work in the dealership for six months can be earning more than $40,000 or $50,000 — pay that continues to rise through the years, she said.
A common path
Mercedes is based in Germany, where apprenticeship is a common path into jobs and careers for blue collar workers.
That arrangement tends to correct labor market mismatches by teaching prospective employees the sorts of skills that are needed by companies, said Christian Treiber, a Mercedes vice president.
“I do not believe we have this problem in Germany. I believe we will see more of this [in the United States] in years to come,” he said.
One reason for the shortage of skilled technician is the persistent image of the greasy mechanic, he said: “The image of the job is not what it needs to be and what it deserves to be.”
For example, the line of Mercedes called the “E class” has 83 computers, Treiber said. “There are 100 million lines of code. That’s an indication of how much skill is required.”
While a technician needs mechanical aptitude, that and the willingness to get greasy is no longer enough for diagnosing and repairing problems with a car, he said. “There really isn’t anything you can do anymore without a computer.”
With the massive loss of decent-paying manufacturing jobs during past four decades, many economists have been concerned for a long time that the economy is leaving blue collar workers behind.
Then the Great Recession came along and devastated construction work – another source of employment for workers who do not go to college or engineering programs.
Blue collar worries
For remaining blue collar jobs, the long, slow recovery from the Great Recession has spurred more worry about the future. Such jobs, the worry goes, are more likely to be outsourced or automated.
Yet there are many jobs that still must be done here. And ultimately there are enough people to do the work, Treiber said. “There’s nothing that needs to be outsourced. There is so much talent here.”
As for automation, there are some jobs that technology augments, but doesn’t eliminate – in a number of sectors.
There are many jobs in healthcare, for example, that involve sometimes intense use of technology, but don’t require coding skills or advanced degrees. In fact, Steven Liu had first aimed at a career as a radiology technician. Then he had something of an epiphany.
“I had a passion for cars,” said Liu. “I turned my passion into a career.”
A graduate of Lakeside High School, Liu went to Universal Technical Institute, a two-year technical school in North Carolina. He focused on Nissan repairs and maintenance.
Then because he had done well, Mercedes invited him to the DRIVE program in Jacksonville.
The 16-week training was “much more specific,” and so he felt prepared when he started working at Mercedes-Benz of Marietta in late November.
Liu pointed under the hood. He had found the problem with the car’s air conditioning: There was a place where the Freon was leaking out.
Race car expert
Nearby, Jeremy Bagamary, 33, watched approvingly. Although he was in an earlier – and longer – incarnation of the Mercedes program, he has only been at the Marietta dealership since the start of June.
He came to Mercedes after six years of building race car engines.
“I wanted stability,” he said. “I have a wife and three kids. And I was tired of being on the road forty-eight weekends a year.”
Mercedes had sent him to Oregon for six months, then to Asheville. But he and his wife had wanted to raise their kids in metro Atlanta.
Training programs serve both worker and employer, said David Walski, customer care director at the dealership.
Succeeding at DRIVE proves that a worker is dependable and organized, he said. “And the knowledge needed – it’s not simple. You need to know about computers and electrical systems, there’s chemistry and physics and even some biology.”
“Vehicles are very different today. They are complicated.”
He said the Mercedes-Benz of Marietta dealership currently has two job openings for technicians, one advanced, one entry level.
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