Driven To Succeed

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Students in Oklahoma are tuning up their work skills with the help of the auto industry.

Tulsa, Okla.

Tulsa Technology Center would like to turn out more students like Dustin Dillman.

Now in his second year of the vocational school's automotive-service program, the 18-year-old Dillman works as an intern at Tulsa's Thomas Cadillac, says he's made up his mind to be an auto technician, and gets high marks from his supervisor.

"Dustin is very receptive to what you're showing him. He catches on real quick. He's not a know-it-all," says auto technician Mike Smith, Dillman's mentor at Thomas Cadillac. "If everybody coming out of that school was like him, we're going to be OK as far as future mechanics go."

Both the Tulsa County vocational school district and local businesses can share the credit for Dustin Dillman's prospects. Tulsa Technology Center, which serves 1,800 students from the county's 40 public and private high schools, receives certification from the auto industry and prepares students for jobs by placing them in paid internships with local auto-repair shops and car dealerships.

Dillman's internship is part of a national program called Automotive Youth Educational Systems, or AYES, which is run by General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Corp.

Spurred by the federal School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994, such partnerships have become popular in recent years, especially in the automotive industry, says Kimberly Green, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Vocational Technical Education Consortium in Washington.

"The automotive industry has excelled in reaching out to the education community," she says, noting that it has been a leader in developing a certification process for high school programs and promoting that process on a statewide level. The welding and printing industries are now doing the same.

A growing number of educators, meanwhile, realize that if they are to graduate students who can find jobs, they need to work more closely with businesses.

"We put our heads together with the business people and said, 'We cannot effectively train an entry-level person to be a technician without your help,'" says Gene Kirkpatrick, an instructor at Tulsa Technology Center who helped start the school's automotive internship programs. "They can tell us more about what's happening with these new cars than we can ever read in the books."

General Motors CEO John Smith Jr. came up with the idea for an auto-technician internship program while visiting apprenticeship programs in Germany. Initially called GM-Youth Educational Systems, the program was launched in 1995 in Oklahoma, which has some of the best vocational schools in the country.

Tulsa Technology Center's automotive-service program, for example, was recognized in December as the best of its kind in the nation by the Industry Planning Council, a collaboration between vocational educators and representatives from the automotive industry.

"The vision was, how can you get the best of the German apprenticeship system into the American education system, considering the cultural differences?"

Stan Moore,
General Motors

To date, 161 students from 29 schools nationwide have participated in AYES internships. An additional 31 schools are in the process of joining the program.

"The vision was, how can you get the best of the German apprenticeship system into the American education system, considering the huge differences in culture?" says Stan Moore, the director of AYES for General Motors, which has put $5 million into the program.

The name of the Detroit-based program was changed to AYES after General Motors started to recruit other companies to support it. So far, Chrysler, which joined the effort last year, is the only partner. The program received a $535,000 grant under the federal school-to-work act, which is administered by the U.S. departments of Labor and Education.

One objective of AYES is to attract more young people to the automotive field to offset a severe national shortage of technicians, Moore says.

In addition, he says, dealers would like to see "a higher level of skill" from entry-level technicians coming out of vocational programs, especially now that almost all of the functional parts in today's cars are computerized.

The shortage of technicians in Oklahoma has become so acute in the past five years that dealers can no longer "rob from each other," says Mike Henson, the service manager for Bob Howard Chevrolet in Oklahoma City.

"I could run an ad in the Oklahoma City newspaper and not get one application," Henson says, while two high school students from the city's Francis Tuttle Vocational Technical Center work on cars outside his office. "We needed to get into the pipeline [for technicians] sooner."

Terry Gordon, the service manager for Jim Norton Buick, Pontiac, and GMC in Tulsa, agrees.

High school students are "on the young side as far as what would be ideal," Gordon says, but he thinks it's a good idea to "grow your own" technicians. Besides, he says, you don't have to pay them $18 an hour, the going rate for permanent technicians.

Gordon has an AYES intern now who plans to go on to a local two-year postsecondary program in automotive repair after he graduates from Tulsa Technology Center. The service manager hopes to keep him on board.

"He's pretty capable even now," Gordon says.

Students get paid $5.50 an hour--35 cents more than the minimum wage--while participating in AYES internships. But they don't complain about the money.

Dillman, the Tulsa Technology Center student, has wanted to be a car mechanic from the age of 10. He has tinkered plenty on his own cars--a 1979 Ford truck and 1968 Dodge Polara--but the internship gives him extra skills, particularly in electronics.

"You have to be pretty sharp to go right out of high school" into an auto-technician job, he says. "There's no way you can do it."

Tulsa technology students can participate in internships in the afternoons and take vocational classes at night.

In the first year of the automotive-service programs at both Tulsa Technology Center and Francis Tuttle, the students--usually juniors in high school--divide their time between classes at their home high school and the vocational school. In the second year of the program, they also take internships. Tulsa Technology students, who until recently had internships only in the summer, now can opt to participate in internships in the afternoons and take vocational classes at night.

"We can learn a lot more out here than in school," says Justin Grishan, one of Oklahoma City's Bob Howard Chevrolet interns from the Francis Tuttle center. On a recent warm winter day, he's fixing the lock on a car door. He's also had the chance to work on more complex projects, such as fixing a car's steering and suspension systems.

One reason General Motors started its school-to-work program in Oklahoma is that the state was among the first to require its vocational programs to be certified by industry groups as a condition of receiving state funding.

AYES won't work with public schools unless their automotive-service programs have the seal of the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, which is given only after the programs are evaluated by the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation in Herndon, Va. Both NATEF and the automotive institute are financed by auto companies.

Twelve states now require all automotive-service programs to be certified, or have a date set by which they must be certified, to receive state funding. Across the country, 483 automotive-service programs for public high school students are certified by the Institute for Automotive Service Excellence.

David Holmes, the principal of one of Tulsa Technology Center's four campuses, says certification gives a vocational program "credibility with the industry," making it easier to place graduates in jobs. It also helps the program keep its curriculum and instruction more in line with what's happening at a state or national level, he says.

But he acknowledges that upgrading the school's equipment to meet NATEF standards cost several hundred thousand dollars.

"The investment of time by school personnel is incredible," adds Paul Stewart, a Tulsa Technology Center instructor who is closely involved in the certification process.

While the partnership between the center and the Tulsa auto dealers has benefited the school in many ways, complications occasionally arise.

As the center's transportation-internship coordinator, Stewart serves as a link between the world of education and the world of business. It's a job that requires some diplomacy, he says.

"The person who acts as a coordinator--they're going to have to be patient," Stewart says. "There definitely are a lot of politics involved."

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