Shane Kee loves to tinker with his purple and white 1970 Chevrolet pickup truck but recently turned down a job offer to turn wrenches at a Chevy dealership. It's just too risky with so many dealerships closing these days.
"I figured it would be a safer bet to pursue some other way right now," said Kee, 21, of Crowley, Texas, who just graduated from WyoTech technical school's automotive mechanic program.
The job market for new mechanics is a mixed bag of bolts lately.
General Motors and Chrysler are closing 3,200 dealerships nationwide, and aren't doing any favors for recent automotive tech graduates looking for mechanic jobs. But fewer people buying new cars and trucks also means people are counting on their older vehicles to run reliably.
That means plenty of business for independent repair shops -- and they're hiring.
"The students that are near the top of their class, that stay up with the technology and are willing to learn, there will be jobs for them," said Mike Garblik, an automotive technology instructor at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio.
Chain repair shops are answering the increased demand for their services by building new locations.
Pep Boys, which has 562 locations nationwide, plans to open 15 stores with service centers over the remainder of 2009 and more than 20 such locations next year. Each will have seven or eight new employees including entry-level mechanics, said Troy Fee, the company's human resources director.
Firestone Complete Auto Care has more than 1,500 locations and plans to open 80 more this year. That's almost twice as many locations as the company opened last year, said company spokeswoman Victoria Condell.
"People are in need of automotive service. They want to keep their cars," she said.
Each new Firestone shop will have about a dozen employees, including mechanics starting at $14 an hour.
Firestone recruits mechanics from WyoTech, a private trade school owned by Santa Ana, Calif.-based Corinthian Colleges. WyoTech has six campuses in four states, including its namesake first campus in Laramie, and is one of the nation's largest automotive technical schools.
WyoTech graduates have had a somewhat tougher time finding jobs because of the recession, said Jack Longress, automotive repair education coordinator at WyoTech in Laramie.
A couple years ago, dealerships and other employers would offer WyoTech graduates tuition reimbursements and up to $2,000 to cover the cost of tools they would need, he said.
"Employers have always come in here and told us they would take as many graduates as we could produce," Longress said. "Our graduates pretty much had to produce their diploma and be halfway presentable in an interview and they had a position."
Incentives have become less common, but Longress said demand for WyoTech graduates remains relatively strong — especially for students willing to move anywhere.
"When these students just hit the road and start following up on resumes and stuff like that, I think our placement is holding steady," Longress said.
Job placement also is holding steady — at about 90 percent — for graduates of another nationwide automotive trade school, Phoenix-based Universal Technical Institute, said Chief Financial Officer Eugene Putnam.
Enrollment at UTI has steadily increased. The recession has dried up basic job opportunities and forced young people to think harder about how to make a living, Putnam said.
"Their interest in furthering their education and doing something that will provide them a career — as opposed to just going into construction or flipping burgers or something like that — is heightened," he said.
Garblik said freshly forged mechanics can expect to compete with laid-off dealership mechanics.
But rookies and master technicians don't compete directly for jobs. That's because master technicians command much higher pay — into six figures, potentially, if they're working on high-end makes in California.
Most shops have a mix of veterans who handle the difficult diagnostics and complex repairs and rookies who do routine maintenance and simple repairs, said Tony Molla, spokesman for the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, which certifies automotive training programs.
Molla said the long-term job outlook for automotive technicians is sound because the nation's mechanics are getting older. About half will be eligible for retirement in seven to 12 years.
"We're turning out about 35,000 students a year from our tech schools around the country. That's not enough to keep up with the attrition from the technicians that will be eligible for retirement," he said.
Kee graduated from WyoTech on June 19 and his future is gold -- literally.
After passing over the Chevy dealership job, Kee accepted a job with Vancouver, Canada-based Goldcorp., one of the world's largest gold mining companies. He will make $26 an hour repairing enormous earth movers at an open-pit gold mine in Nevada.
With gold at near-record prices and plenty of gold left at the mine to recover, Kee figures he made the right decision.
"This industry right now is pretty good," he said. "They kind of thrive when the economy is like this."