Wednesday, 20 May 2015 00:00

A Call to Arms: Green River College Plans to Terminate Auto Body Technology Program

Over the past several years, collision repair associations have shared a common concern: the future of the industry and the need to develop and educate the next generation of collision repair professionals. Nationwide, there has been a decrease in the number of quality technicians entering the industry, yet despite this need, collision repair training programs are diminishing at terrifying rates across the country. Most recently, Green River College in Auburn, WA has announced their intention to terminate their Auto Body Technology program.

Mark Millbauer works with students at Green River College, but what will these students do if the school closes the program.

 

A letter dated May 8 from Green River College President Dr. Eileen Ely reads: "The auto body technology program is also being considered for termination. The program currently has a capacity of a total of 18 students for a combined cohort. An attempt at running an evening program did not succeed. The low capacity and low industry demand contribute to the program's inability to be economically feasible... The program operates at a loss of approximately $80,000. The College will also incur additional costs to set up an auto body program in the new trades building."

Green River College is also considering the termination of their Carpentry Technology and Geographic Information Systems programs. The letter provided advocates until June 8 to submit recommendations and alternatives to save the program.

Members of the college's faculty disagree with Green River's assessment of the program's viability. They believe the decision to terminate is based on inaccurate data. Dr. Ely's letter states that there is low industry demand, a factor that seems doubtful given the industry's pleas for more trained technicians. Furthermore, a report on Automotive Body and Glass Repairers, published on bls.gov, predicts a 13% growth in these jobs between 2012 and 2022. Looking at the collision repair industry as a viable career options for these students, the same report indicated a national median annual wage of $38,380 as of May 2012, but WA technicians actually enjoy slightly higher wages on average. With emphasis on training and certification constantly increasing in importance, it is imperative that the next generation of collision repair professionals receive a proper education in order to gain employment in shops after graduation.

The instructor of Auto Body Technology at Green River, Mark Millbauer, has logged over four decades of collision repair experience, half of which has been spent as an instructor. He chose to temporarily cancel their evening class program after some classroom management issues, and while enrollment had declined recently, Millbauer says enrollment had reached all-time highs during the peaks of the Great Recession and had begun to decline as the economy recovered. He felt "it was better to have fewer, fuller classes at that time than to waste money hiring more instructors to teach more, emptier classes."

The school's data compares current enrollment to a snapshot of 2010 when the auto body program boasted one of the highest enrollment counts in Millbauer's tenure. At the height of the Recession, his classes were overenrolled by 40% and had a waiting list of close to 40 names. Even at their point of lowest enrollment, "no classes were empty and always reached at least 80% of our capacity," he says. "We only dropped from 21 to 17 credits per quarter when the administration agreed to cut the night class."

While Dr. Ely's letter also mentions the limited 18-student capacity of the program as a reason for potential termination, Millbauer insists, "The administration never mentioned the capacity of the targeted programs. In fact, when I suggested raising my capacity by 10%, they objected because of safety concerns. In our meeting on Monday with the Department Chairs, the administration suggested the rest of the college raise their capacities and/or find $981,000 from the instructional side of the college, but creative solutions won't make up the estimated cut they anticipate from the state due to enrollment being down in all 34 colleges in WA."

Millbauer and the carpentry instructor are both members of the Union leadership. In the past two years, the faculty and staff has filed two votes of "no confidence" against the college president, and feeling targeted by their Union involvement, the teachers have filed an Unfair Labor Practices suit against Green River. Millbauer believes, "It's not about the money - it's extortion. They're using our relationships with the rest of the faculty to blackmail them. They present facts, figures and data to support their decision, but that information changes at every meeting."

Green River College recently invested close to $40 million in a new building, and though their claims that they haven't bought any equipment is partially true, the building, paint booths and frame machines have been purchased and are waiting to be installed thanks to state funding. Millbauer predicts that it would cost "hundreds of thousands" to remodel the facility for use by another program.

As far as the $80,000 deficit the college claims, Millbauer insists this is the first he's heard of it. "This is higher education; the goal has never been production and revenue. They are hitting us with bills for 'our share' of maintenance charges, secretary fees and so forth... Some programs are more expensive to run, but they've always been offset by the lower cost programs.

Sue Z Hart, Marketing Specialist for Green River College's Trade Division, knows these programs are expensive and need help to operate but worries about the image of the industry that the closure of such programs suggest. "People have a really negative image of the industry. Jobs in the trades should be a first choice, not a fallback option, because these are first-rate jobs and they pay well."

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