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Michigan Students Try for National Championship in Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills Competition

DEARBORN, Mich., June 24 -- For Justin Jedele and Ryan Szpara of Saline, Monday, June 27, is a day for which they have worked much of their young lives. Jedele and Szpara, both 18, will compete against two-man teams of teenagers from the 49 other states in the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills Competition in Washington, D.C.

During four years at Saline High School, Jedele and Szpara have spent hundreds of hours studying automotive service manuals and working on countless, varied problems under the hoods of test cars. On Monday, they will put all their knowledge and acquired skills on the line in a quest for scholarships worth more than $85,000 apiece for the first-place team.

The pair earned their shot at the national championship in April when they finished first in the Michigan state finals by taking just 64 minutes to successfully diagnose and correct nine electrical and mechanical "bugs" deliberately placed in a 2005 Taurus by Ford engineers. That victory earned them $20,000 apiece in scholarship and equipment prizes as well as the trip to Washington.

Sunday, the 50 student teams will take a written exam testing in detail their knowledge of all aspects of automotive repair and maintenance. They will have one hour to complete the 100-question exam, and their test score will count for 40 percent of their final score in the competition.

Monday morning, the teams will line up facing a row of 2005 Ford Tauruses, each of which will have been identically bugged with an unknown number of electrical and mechanical malfunctions. When the official starter says, "Gentleman, start your engines if you can," the 100 students will race to their assigned cars and try to determine the causes of the car's problems.

The first team who thinks they have found and fixed all the bugs will shut their car's hood and drive to the finish line, but they won't necessarily be the winners. A team of Ford technicians will inspect the vehicle to assure that all the bugs have been corrected. If an uncorrected problem is found, points will be deducted from the team's score. The trophy goes to the first team to finish with no points deducted. A team's finish in the hands-on competition accounts for 60 percent of their total championship score.

The finish area can be heartbreak alley. In this year's Michigan final, the first team to the finish line lost the top prize because they failed to detect and fix a faulty internal trunk light. Jedele and Szpara were the second team to finish, but they had detected and corrected all the problems including the trunk light.

One of the most heartbreaking finishes in national competition occurred in 1998. The Michigan team was first to complete its work, but when they prepared to drive to the finish line, they realized they had locked the keys inside the car. By the time they were able to extricate the keys and start the vehicle, several other teams had crossed the finish line with all problems solved.

Ford Motor Co. and AAA sponsor the annual Student Auto Skills Competition as part of their ongoing effort to encourage talented youngsters to pursue careers as automotive technicians. Each year, the competition draws more than 6,000 high school students in the 50 states, and more than $5 million in scholarships and other prizes are awarded.

"Today's automotive students will be the technicians Americans will depend on in the years ahead to keep our vehicles running," said Robert Kaczor, AAA Michigan's assistant vice president, Automotive Services.

"The need for their skills is critical. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that the nation is currently approximately 32,000 short of the number of skilled auto technicians we need, and that need is expected to grow as much as another 20 percent by the year 2012," Kaczor said.

"Ford Motor Co. and AAA are pleased to be able to work together to sponsor this Student Auto Skills Competition to inspire young people to help answer this critical need by considering an automotive career," Kaczor said.

Kaczor noted that the average auto service technician earns approximately $38,000 annually in today's labor market for a 40-hour week, and with overtime and incentive pay, some senior technicians can earn as much as $100,000. Approximately 70 percent of auto service shops provide employee benefits such as paid vacations, medical coverage and training/education assistance.

The Student Auto Skills Competition was started in 1949. AAA has been a co-sponsor since 1984, and Ford Motor Co. became a co-sponsor 12 years ago.