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Where Do Today’s Automotive Students Come From?

When I was younger, every boy and girl had a bike and worked on it. If you liked doing that, you got a minibike and a go kart, working on bigger projects with your dad or an uncle who was handy. That’s where a lot of automotive students came from and, when I was teaching with GM, everyone had a similar story about growing up with hands-on experience.

By jeff mason

March 26, 2021

Thirty years later, students with that background are the minority of what we’re seeing in class at Gateway Community College. Although we get a few kids with a traditional background, we see more students who haven’t had any exposure to mechanical experiences. I actually have to teach righty-tighty, lefty-loosey and basic hand tools in my intro class.

How Do Students Come to Gateway Community College?

We’re proactive about reaching out and will talk to teachers in schools, even if those schools don’t have automotive programs. For example, I talked with an instructor in Madison, Connecticut, where they have a boat building program and he loves what we’re doing. When we find teachers like that, they tell the kids about our program and they begin to consider a future in a skilled area.

We also get several veterans every year. They usually went into service right out of high school and are using today’s version of the GI Bill to go back to school because somewhere along the line, they got the bug to work on cars. They usually do very well because they have the discipline and maturity.

If you give a kid success in the first weeks of learning, they realize they can do this and love it.

A small percentage come to us because college wasn’t for them, either they didn’t want to go or flunked out, and their parents insist they take a course. Some kids got attracted to cars by seeing something on tv or online and are intrigued enough to come talk to us.

Can Students Succeed Without a Mechanical Background?

Automotive students at Madison Automotive Apprentice Program.

Our freshman class is a perfect example of that. One student is already interning at a local dealership. He’s always wanted to do this kind of work and came to class with basic tool skills. He’s working alongside a kid fresh out of high school who just decided he wants to work on cars and is eager as can be, showing up with a set of inexpensive tools. He just bought what we put on the tool list and wasn’t sure how to use them.

I paired the two of them and they complement each other. One is truly hands-on and shows the less experienced student which socket to use or where to use a large versus small ratchet. They each bring something different with them; our eager student is good with data. Picture them disassembling an engine, with giant smiles. One is learning how to use tools and the other is learning how to use a micrometer. When we’re lucky enough to pair students, everyone has something to give and learn from someone else.

Can These Students Build an Automotive Career?

When we recruit, we don’t know what we’ll get and end up with skills that go from one end of the spectrum to the other. We have four new students starting this semester. They’re behind the cohort that started last fall. Three of them are not from that traditional background and, four weeks into the semester, they’re loving it. They’re learning the most basic of skills and maybe they didn’t think they could but they’re discovering they can. I anticipate that we’ll have most of the freshman class in a position to do oil changes and basic checks this summer and be employable with no background whatsoever.

When someone comes in without any background, I become proud of what we accomplished together. I’m a firm believer that I can show them they can do something and am good at breaking it down into steps. If you give a kid success in the first weeks of learning, they realize they can do this and love it.

Dan Fuller teaches at Gateway Community College and, as department chair, directs the Automotive Program. In 2013, he was recognized as the Automotive Service Excellence Master/L1 Auto Tech of Year.

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