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Ronald Szczepankiewicz represents the efforts of the United Auto Workers and area car dealers to train more qualified mechanics to repair the increasingly complicated cars being manufactured now.

Szczepankiewicz is the first graduate of an apprentice program started in the Buffalo area by the union and area car dealers to train apprentice mechanics to become "automotive technicians." The program also is being used to teach long-time mechanics how to solve the mysteries under the hoods of today's cars.

The 30-year-old Cheektowaga resident said he has been interested in cars for as long as he can remember. He studied auto mechanics at Burgard Vocational High School. After graduation he got a job repairing engines at Mead Supply Inc., then left to work at Basil Oldsmobile, starting in the car washing bay and advancing to apprentice mechanic. He currently works at Keller Chevrolet in Cheektowaga.

"You can't work on a car any more if you're the average handyman," he said. "In some of the new cars, you can't even find the spark plugs."

The training program has been adopted by the UAW nationwide, which, with the state, has set standards. They include 8,000 hours of on-the-job training and 576 hours of classroom instruction.

After nearly three years, the program remains concentrated in the Buffalo area. That's because in other parts of the country having a union mechanic in a car dealership is rare, according to Donald Marlinski, who coordinates the program for UAW Local 55. The local represents employees in the 18 participating area car dealerships.

Currently 60 apprentices and journeyman mechanics are attending the training classes at night on their own time.

The courses are given at Erie Community College's Vehicle Technology Training Center and at the General Motors Training Center in Clarence.

The union says the program was initiated by the mechanics themselves, who realized they needed additional training to work on the new, electronically controlled cars. Many of the dealerships helped develop the program because they saw it as a way of easing a shortage of qualified mechanics.

Fred Gillogly is chairman of a six-member union-management committee that administers the program. Costs are paid by the dealers, a grant from the State University of New York and corporate training grants. Of the 18 dealers participating, 16 are GM dealers, one is a Ford dealer and the other sells Hondas.

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