One organization claims that the automotive and trucking industries combined will need 600,000 new maintenance personnel over the next four years. But just as demand is skyrocketing, the number of trade school graduates is falling rapidly. While applications to four-year academic schools are up, trade schools are becoming a dying breed.

But what are trade schools really like these days? What kind of training are our future mechanics getting? Trucks are becoming more and more like computers on wheels; will tomorrow's technicians know how to work on them?

To find out, I visited the Nashville Auto-Diesel College (NADC) in Nashville. I'd interviewed Dick Reed, the school's operations manager, once by phone, but had never been to the school in person. I figured that by dropping in unannounced, I'd get an unvarnished look at daily trade school life.

Reed didn't hesitate for a minute; he walked me through 14 buildings of NADC “classrooms.” In my opinion, if NADC is representative of trade schools today, fleet managers can sleep easy at night in at least one respect: graduates will be solid. There just won't be enough of them.

NADC is all business. Its 1,200 students wear color-coded shirts to identify what courses they're in — blue for auto and diesel technician, maroon for auto body repair, and red for high-performance engine and fabrication.

The school gets rolling at 6:30 a.m. sharp and breaks at 1:30 p.m., with a second shift of classes starting at 2:30 p.m. and running until 9 p.m. The teachers, all ex-mechanics, run a tight ship. Yet they don't hover over their students, either; they force the students to think and work on their own.

Students get lots of hands-on experience, working on “dead” engines and transmissions first to get a feel for how the components fit together before moving on to “live” models. And they keep their work areas extremely clean, with metal pans under each work area catching any fluids or oils that might leak onto the floor.

It's a real-world education, too. For example, auto body repair students fix and paint a wide variety of vehicles owned by the public.

These aren't Buicks I'm talking about. I looked at a four-door crew cab pickup with bright orange and purple paint lined up next to a '56 Thunderbird being restored to mint condition. Reed also told me that if the customer spots a mistake, the students go back and work on it till they get it right. You can't get more real-world than that.

On the truck side, engines from every make and model are available for “study.” That includes the old mechanical monsters right alongside brand-new electronic diesels. The students also learn the how and why of engines, especially the electronics. They have to learn about electrons and protons, how electricity flows, the laws of physics, etc. — not what comes to mind for most people when they hear “trade school.”

NADC grads don't lack for job offers; most get four to six apiece, Reed told me. In fact, demand is so high the school is planning to buy another 10 acres of land so it can double its student body.

Unfortunately for fleets, competition for graduates of schools like NADC is especially tough. In fact, many truck manufacturers are partnering with such schools in order to get a “lock” on their graduates.

If there are any trade schools in your area, you might want to think about ways you can get involved. That could mean visiting local high schools to talk to students about careers as technicians, and encouraging them to consider trade schools. These schools are going to play a critical role in putting mechanics in your shop for years to come. It's time to take a closer look.