Driven To Succeed

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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."

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