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N.H. community colleges are helping to train much needed electric vehicle mechanics

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Electric vehicles tend to require less maintenance than their combustion engine counterparts. But when an EV needs a fix, not every mechanic has a know-how. Sarah Gibson of New Hampshire Public Radio tells us how local schools and repair shops are bringing technicians up to speed.

SARAH GIBSON, BYLINE: In the auto repair wing of White Mountains Community College, Troy LaChance and his students are building an electric car.

TROY LACHANCE: And you can see the relief here for where that high-voltage cabling comes through.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Comes out, yeah.

LACHANCE: See it?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Yep.

LACHANCE: So that box will bolt to the floor.

GIBSON: The kit for this car is designed by a California company as a learning tool. It can be disassembled and rebuilt every semester. It looks pretty plain - two seats, no roof - but it can go up to 60 miles an hour. LaChance says this is the new frontier.

LACHANCE: It's not like it used to be. It's not all gears and oil and a lot of mechanical stuff anymore. There is a lot of programming and electronics that happens in general. EVs, obviously, is even more.

GIBSON: The number of electric vehicles in New England is expected to increase dramatically over the next decade, experts estimate by at least 2 million. LaChance says technicians are going to need to know the EV basics, how they work and how to handle their high-voltage batteries, which, without proper safety precautions, can be deadly.

LACHANCE: It's really the high-voltage stuff, and being able to recognize when high voltage is included in that repair is part of that training.

GIBSON: Community colleges are part of the pipeline preparing the next generation of technicians. But LaChance says his classes are shrinking. Fewer young people are interested in this career. It's a problem the whole auto industry is facing. And requiring an EV class as part of the degree here was a risk because most students aren't jazzed about EVs at first. Take 22-year-old Alex Anderson. He got interested in cars first with his granddad fixing motorcycles and his 1992 Toyota Camry. He says, at first, working on an EV wasn't intuitive.

ALEX ANDERSON: I always made fun of electric vehicles before I did this class. I still do a little bit, but I actually quite enjoy it.

GIBSON: And if he really enjoys it, he could end up working for someone like Drew Young, who directs services and an apprenticeship program at a used car dealership near Concord.

DREW YOUNG: I would almost liken it to being, you know, in the medical profession. Some people specialize, some people are general practitioners, some people are surgeons, and you've got to find out where your niche is.

GIBSON: Young says, so far, only a handful of his technicians have been excited about getting EV certified. He's hoping that gradually more will get on board.

YOUNG: At some point in time, internal combustion vehicles are going to become fewer, and these will become more prevalent. And if you can't do these, you're not going to be as worthwhile or as valuable as an employee.

GIBSON: At a Ford dealership up the road from Young's shop, Brian Tuttle is an example of a technician in that EV niche.

BRIAN TUTTLE: I am definitely the EV nerd here. I've gotten pretty much immersed in them.

GIBSON: Tuttle's been working with Ford Motor Company for 30 years, and he says electric vehicles have kept him engaged intellectually for the last 10. EV customers come here specifically for him, but he wonders about who will take his place.

TUTTLE: Obviously, we're not going to be around forever. It's going to be a little challenging for the industry when us old guys retire.

GIBSON: Tuttle says some of the best bets are the community colleges and apprenticeship programs. And maybe, with the right teacher and class, young people will get that EV bug just like he has. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Gibson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on New Hampshire's southern tier.