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."

The stress of working with local auto businesses sent one internship coordinator back to full-time teaching.

The stress of working with the local auto businesses was enough to send Gene Kirkpatrick back to being a full-time teacher after spending three years as the internship coordinator. He was happy to turn the job over to Stewart.

"I feel more effective working one-on-one with the students preparing them for this industry than being out here putting up with the politics and frustrations," Kirkpatrick says.

Those politics spring from the competition between Tulsa auto businesses, Stewart says.

Before GM came to town with its internship program, Tulsa Technology Center and the local chamber of commerce had already started an auto-repair internship program called Transportation-2000. Under T-2000, car dealers and independent auto-shop owners met on the same advisory committee for the vocational school.

When AYES became an option, the GM car dealers chose to have their own internship program rather than participate in T-2000 with the independent auto-shop owners.

"They wanted complete separation with advertising and publicity from the nondealers," Stewart says of the gm dealers.

Tulsa Technology Center accommodated the dealers by operating both T-2000 and AYES, with separate advisory committees. Of the 36 center students who completed internships last summer, half interned with AYES dealers and half with T-2000 businesses.

"We ought to have only one program," says Jim Blankenship, the owner of Jim Blankenship's Body Shop and the chairman of the transportation executive advisory committee for Tulsa Technology Center. "It's a duplication. We're two organizations doing the same thing with the same instructors, same students, and everything."

The dealers also created some resentment by encouraging the vocational school to offer students a specific GM educational track.

The school needs to prepare students to work on all makes of vehicles for a variety of businesses.

Five car manufacturers, including GM, provide training programs for their own vehicle lines at Oklahoma State University at Okmulgee. The university places students in internships with only those five manufacturers, an arrangement that gives local dealers for those companies a major advantage in hiring auto technicians coming out of that program. Some Tulsa GM dealers wanted a similar arrangement at the high school level.

"Some dealers were real adamant about it," recalls service manager Terry Gordon, who, while he represents a dealership, says he could see both sides. "Some people felt that if [the educational track] wasn't all GM, dealers wouldn't buy into it."

Having an educational track for a specific vehicle line was a concession toward business that Tulsa Technology Center could not and did not make, Stewart says. The school needs to prepare students to work on all kinds of vehicles for a variety of businesses, from quick-service shops to independent repair shops to car dealerships, he says.

"As an educator, I have to take care of the kids," he says.

One lesson that both the public school instructors and the businessmen have learned about the Tulsa school-to-work programs for auto repair is that the payoffs aren't guaranteed, and they don't happen immediately.

Students sometimes drop out of the programs, either because they change their career goals or have a bad attitude.

"Attitude means more than aptitude," says Tim Dwyer, the owner of Superwrench, a Tulsa shop that specializes in repairing Japanese cars. He's had three student interns from the T-2000 program and fired two of them because of what he describes as attitude problems. But he likes the attitude of the third intern and may eventually hire her permanently, he says.

During the first year of the AYES program at Francis Tuttle Vocational Technical Center in Oklahoma City, two out of 11 students dropped out. In the second year of the program, five out of nine students dropped out.

"It's a hard program to stick with," says Tammy Ellis, an automotive-service-technology instructor at Francis Tuttle. The internship "is not sitting around working on a car when you feel like it."

Some students disqualified themselves by not sticking to the program's requirements on school attendance, Ellis says. One student was disqualified because he racked up too many tickets for driving violations, something an auto business won't stand for. Another dropped out because he didn't have reliable transportation to work.

Ellis says she expects the school to be more successful with the 23 students who will be participating in the next round of internships because she and others have spent more time preparing both the students and dealers on what to expect.

Tulsa Technology Center teachers and administrators try to prepare students for the business world by having them punch a time clock for their vocational education classes and attend forums once a week on "soft skills," such as how to conduct oneself during a job interview.

Stewart, the center instructor, recalls how local auto businessmen collaborated with him last year to stage a practice situation in which the businessmen interviewed students for jobs.

One lesson that teachers and businessmen have both learned about school-to-work programs is that the payoffs aren't guaranteed, and they don't happen immediately.

Some students dressed well and had r‚sum‚s in hand. Others did not. One student folded a paper airplane during the interview process. Other students hung on to their coats "like security blankets," Stewart says, smiling.

Even when an internship doesn't work out, it can still be beneficial, Stewart says. He recalls a special-needs student who completed 320 internship hours and then decided not to continue with the occupation. But at least he figured out that he didn't want to be an auto mechanic, Stewart says.

"My belief is that most internships fail because at least one of the partners takes the view that this is a short-term payoff," Stewart says.

Body-shop owner Jim Blankenship agrees.

"We're pumping up employees to the industry, and we'll all benefit," he argues. Even if the Tulsa internship programs turn out only five to 10 students a year who stay with the occupation, he says, "we're going to have quite an impact."

School-to-work programs have attracted critics who say they don't give young people a broad enough academic base to change their careers later in life if they want to do so.

"We don't want our children to be trained for one specific job. We want them to be educated," says Joan Johnson, the chairwoman of the Oklahoma chapter of the Eagle Forum, a conservative organization based in Alton, Ill., that monitors family issues.

But the teachers and administrators in the Tulsa automotive program defend the training they provide.

Kirkpatrick, the Tulsa Technology Center teacher, says it's challenging and interesting to work on the new electronically controlled cars. And as the word gets around, he's noticed an increase in the grade point averages of students enrolling in the Tulsa program.

"The good technicians can earn $30,000 to $60,000 three to five years out of training as long as they're willing to update [their skills]," he says.

Most of the students interviewed in the Oklahoma programs said they intend to stick with careers that favor hands-on learning.

"I'm one of those people who has got to get dirty," says 19-year-old Josh Harbour, a student at Francis Tuttle Vocational Technical Center who hopes to get into the AYES program. He admits he doesn't care much for "book work."

It was a Francis Tuttle vocational program that brought Harbour back to school after he'd dropped out at age 16. He sees a future in becoming an auto technician.

Dillman, the Tulsa student, earned good grades in school, but "he's not crazy about being in the classroom," says his mother, Polly Dillman. "He's not interested in going to college and doing the big doctor-lawyer thing."

"You can tell me how to do something and I can't remember," Dustin Dillman says. "But if you show me, I can. It's kind of like riding a bike."

After he graduates this year, he plans to attend the two-year automotive-service program at Oklahoma State University. He says he feels better prepared to enter the real world after graduation than some of the students he knows back at his home school, Sky Took High School.

"A lot of kids there," he says, "as soon as school's out, they don't know what to do."

Vol. 17, Issue 23, Page 32-35

Published in Print: February 18, 1998, as Driven To Succeed
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