Payson Students Work Hard To Master Needed Job Skills

Auto shop students learn to rebuild engines, hoping to learn enough to fill one of 450,000 vacant technical jobs

Angie Mitchell, a junior dressed for Homecoming Spirit Week as a “geek” for Nerd Day has taken automotive technology since her freshman year. She is working on a 1997 Mazda Miata donated to the class by vice-principal Anna Van Zile and is focused on removing a head gasket.

Angie Mitchell, a junior dressed for Homecoming Spirit Week as a “geek” for Nerd Day has taken automotive technology since her freshman year. She is working on a 1997 Mazda Miata donated to the class by vice-principal Anna Van Zile and is focused on removing a head gasket. |

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The silent bodies litter Payson High School’s auto shop, laying about in disarray in and outside the classroom. Some lack a hood. Others sit on blocks, their wheels gone, guts exposed to the elements. Still others have their back ends removed.

But this morning no students are working on cars. Rather, they sit in a classroom looking at pictures on a screen of a valve stopped up with gunk.

Sitting at the front of the class, PHS automotive technology teacher Doug Eckhardt explains to his advanced class what to do about the stopped-up valve to prepare them to fix that part of a car.

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Tom Brossart/Roundup

Tyler Hamilton, who rebuilt his BMX bike at age 4, checks for a part on the school computer.

He has taught auto shop in Payson since 1994. Most of the students in this class have advanced past simply learning about preventive maintenance and now study how to replace timing belts and recognize and fix corroded or plugged valves.

Eckhardt wraps up the demonstration by telling the kids to start work on the cars assigned to them.

“Some (of these students) have been around cars their whole lives,” said Eckhardt.

Angie Mitchell, a junior dressed for Homecoming Spirit Week as a “geek” for Nerd Day has taken automotive technology since her freshman year. She’s one of those students who have grown up around cars.

Her brother works as a mechanic on Caterpillar machines, her Dad drives a semi for Arizona Rock and her mother is an aerospace mechanic. Her dream is to follow in the footsteps of her family and become a diesel mechanic.

Eckhardt assigned Mitchell, Tyler Hamilton and Justin Carter to work on a 1997 Miata donated to the class by vice-principal Anna Van Zile.

Today they focus on getting to the head gasket.

“Eckhardt tells us what to work on,” said Mitchell.

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Tom Brossart/Roundup

PHS automotive technology teacher Doug Eckhardt works with a student on removing a pulley on a car that needs a new timing belt.

Eckhardt explains the state of Arizona has a list of expectations students must complete in high school in order to move on to higher education in the auto repair field.

In their first year, students learn the basics of a gas engine including the tire shaft. In their second year, students learn preventive maintenance. By their third and fourth years they can replace the timing belt and study the inner workings of any engine.

Mitchell and Carter move the car up and down on the lift to reach all of the bolts attached to the head gasket.

“Lower it! Hold on, the locks are on,” said Mitchell.

Carter unlocks the lift and the car moves into the correct position.

While Carter loosens and removes bolts, Mitchell gathers them up into plastic bags labeled with each part and where it goes. She says this is the only way she will know how to put the engine back together when she and her group finish working on the car.

The kids focus on their work, but they also have fun.

“We took off the valve cover and now we’re taking the exhaust manifold off. Eckhardt doesn’t have a specific time line for us to finish this,” said Mitchell.

Mitchell says Eckhardt is her favorite teacher. She loves learning about how cars work and appreciates that Eckhardt doesn’t micro-manage them, he acts more as an adviser.

“I teach auto shop because (the students) need to learn the basics about cars. It’s a piece of equipment they will use for the rest of their lives,” said Eckhardt.

The practicality of a vocational education was underscored recently by Mike Rowe who produces the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs.” He recently testified in front of Congress and lamented the lack of qualified skilled labor in the United States:

“Right now, American manufacturing is struggling to fill 200,000 vacant positions. There are 450,000 openings in trades, transportation and utilities. The skills gap is real, and it’s getting wider. In Alabama, a third of all skilled tradesmen are over 55. They’re retiring fast, and no one is there to replace them.

“... In high schools, the vocational arts have all but vanished. We’ve elevated the importance of ‘higher education’ to such a lofty perch that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled ‘alternative.’

“Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as ‘vocational consolation prizes,’ best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree.

“... In a hundred different ways, we have slowly marginalized an entire category of critical professions, reshaping our expectations of a ‘good job’ into something that no longer looks like work,” testified Rowe. (http://dsc.discovery.com/fansites/dirtyjobs/mike-rowe-senate-testimony.html).

Here in Payson, Hamilton will benefit from that need for technically trained workers.

Hamilton, one of the three students working on the Miata, has torn apart and fixed toys since he was a toddler. At 4, he re-built a BMX bike. By the time he was 9, he had rebuilt a Chevy 350 small bloc engine with the help of his stepdad.

Once he finishes school, Hamilton’s cousin in Oklahoma has a mechanic position waiting for him. The cousin is building up a clientele and has purchased the space to start a repair shop.

After Hamilton finishes up studying at the University of Technology Institute (www.uti.edu), he believes he can make up to $80 per hour in his cousin’s shop.

“This has been my plan since my grandpa died. I’ve been planning it since eighth grade,” said Hamilton.

Eckhardt and his class offer Hamilton, Mitchell and Carter a bright future and an opportunity to work with valuable and needed skills.

As Rowe closed his testimony he commented:

“... closing the skills gap doesn’t just benefit future tradesmen and the companies desperate to hire them. It benefits people like me, and anyone else who shares my addiction to paved roads, reliable bridges, heating, air conditioning, and indoor plumbing."

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