To keep up with folks aging out of the field, and growth in demand for services, it's estimated New Jersey will have to pump out nearly 24,000 auto mechanics over the next seven years.

That need is not being met by enrollment in vocational-technical schools in the state, but that's not the only avenue for folks interested in making a career out of the repair and maintenance of vehicles.

Using federal estimates, the New Jersey Coalition of Automotive Retailers said approximately 3,400 auto-tech jobs need to be filled annually through 2026 in the Garden State.

"We're looking at a fairly mature workforce, and not much of a bench there," said NJ CAR President Jim Appleton. "As they start to retire, we think we're going to see a lot more pressure in the shop."

And with motorists taking to the road at an increased rate, Appleton said, the industry is looking at more than just a gap caused by an aging workforce.

"Vehicle miles traveled, even when vehicles are better built, naturally equate to more demand for repair and maintenance," he said.

Getting technically-inclined youth into the field has been a major challenge. Many have not been drawn to the automotive industry, and are instead setting their sights on emerging technology and computer technology positions.

But, Appleton said, the auto-repair world has changed drastically over the years. And today's students may not realize that auto-tech jobs are "more tech than auto."

"They'll spend a lot more time on a laptop than under the hood," Appleton said. "These jobs have more to do with bits and bytes than they do with dirt and grime."

A staple for nearly all vocational-technical schools in the state, automotive programs currently serve close to 1,600 secondary students, according to Judy Savage, executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools.

"One of the things that the schools have had to do over the years, and continually have to do, is upgrade the equipment and technology in their programs to make sure that it keeps pace with the ever-changing technology that's used in the industry," Savage said. "The schools must continually invest in updated equipment, the instructors need to maintain their skills and their certifications."

Automotive and transportation technology ranked as the 7th-most popular career program among students during the 2015-16 academic year, the Council reported in 2018.

In November, New Jersey voters approved the Securing Our Children's Future Bond Act, a good share of which will be devoted to the state's vo-tech schools.

Automotive technician courses are also available at two-year colleges in the state.

Dealership technicians in New Jersey, Appleton said, typically start out earning $50,000 to $70,000. But over time, he said, techs can be making "well into six figures."