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High school automotive students face off in skills challenge

Union Leader Correspondent

January 14. 2018 8:49PM
Andrew Gelina, left, and Aaron Wesling, of the Seacoast School of Technology, work to diagnose problems with a Toyota Camry during Saturday's 2018 New Hampshire Auto Tech Skills Competition, which was held at Lakes Region Community College in Laconia. Gelina and Wesling bested nine other teams to each win $2,000 scholarships and the right to represent the Granite State this spring in the National Automotive Technology Contest in New York City.
 (John Koziol/Union Leader Correspondent)

LACONIA — The best high school automotive students in New Hampshire competed in a skills challenge on Saturday, and when the dust settled, Aaron Wesling and Andrew Gelina took home top honors for the Seacoast School of Technology.

Sponsored by the New Hampshire Automobile Dealers Association and Toyota, the 2018 New Hampshire Auto Tech Skills Competition was held at Lakes Region Community College and featured two-person teams from 10 schools throughout the Granite State.

For successfully and accurately diagnosing four problems with a 2015 Toyota Camry, Gelina and Wesling each received $2,000 scholarships to the New Hampshire Community College automotive program of their choice; a trophy; and the opportunity to represent New Hampshire later this year in the National Automotive Technology Contest in New York City.

“This is awesome,” said Wesling, who is already working in a diesel-engine repair shop and, who, until Saturday, hadn’t planned on going to a post-secondary school for additional training.

But after winning the N.H. skills contest, and receiving the generous scholarship, he said he was “definitely reconsidering” his options.

Gelina, who like Wesling, is a senior at SST, plans to enroll in the diesel/heavy equipment technology program at White Mountains Community College in Berlin.

Along with WMCC, which is allied with Milton-CAT and McDevitt Trucks, three other New Hampshire community colleges have partnerships with manufacturers: Manchester CC, which works with Chrysler, Ford, Subaru and Audi; Nashua CC, Honda; and LRCC, which since 1991 has worked with General Motors.

For the 2017-18 school year, LRCC also began working with Toyota, said instructor Mike Parker. Scott Ellis and Jamie Decato are also instructors at the school. Decato devised the problems that the competitors had to address on Saturday.

First, the students had to determine why their Camrys wouldn’t start (the engines had a bad starter relay); then why the engines wouldn’t turn over (a bad crank-shaft-positon sensor); why the engine misfired and ran rough (a bad ignition coil); and, finally, they ran into an emissions error caused by a faulty oxygen sensor.

Each team had four hours to diagnose and correct the problems, and, ultimately, only two points separated Seacoast School of Technology from the second-place team of Dylan Lacasse and Silas Magargee of Pinkerton Academy. Just 10 points separated the winners from the third-place team of Maxwell Lambert and Mathew Richard of the Concord Regional Technical Center.

Members of the second- and third-place teams received scholarships of $1,500 and $1,000, respectively, and every competitor got at least a $500 scholarship.

Additionally, every competitor is more or less assured of a job as an automotive technician, said Peter McNamara, the president of the NHADA.

Association members have 400 open positions, he said, split evenly between entry-level and advanced technicians, for whom a starting salary is around $60,000 a year, according to McNamara, while Parker noted that some of his graduates, with several years’ experience, were earning upwards of $80,000.

Joe Myers, who is the field manager for Toyota’s Technician Training and Education Network and who came up from Plano, Texas, for the competition, said there is an industrywide shortage of automotive technicians.

In October 2017, there were 1,900 openings at the 1,400 Toyota and Lexus dealerships in the U.S., Myers said, explaining that “we have an aging population of technicians.”

Another contributor to the scarcity is that many technicians segue into the non-service side of the business.

A third reason for the shortage is that “our dealerships are growing at a tremendous rate,” he said. 

Myers said he was “very impressed” with the talent on display at LRCC and that all the students have “very promising careers” ahead of them.

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