Students Should Get Their Hands Dirty

Auto shop class
Photo credit: The Laker / Lutz News

A college degree is the new high school diploma. It’s the minimal education most employers require of their workers, no matter how menial the task. A college degree brings with it crippling student debt, living in your parents’ basement, not being able to afford a car, and working your butt off at multiple low paying jobs to not drown into more debt than you already have. There has to be a better way to live. I recently read an article that explained why vocational training, which has suffered major cuts in most school systems, should make a comeback. This could be that better way.

Where I’m Coming From

The Bromfield School
Photo credit: Dtaw2001 / Wikipedia

I grew up in the preppy little town of Harvard, Massachusetts. Though not connected to the university of the same name, our academic standards were quite high. The Bromfield School sounds like the name of some fancy prep school, but it was actually our town’s public high school. To this day many consider it one to be of the best schools in the state. There were few dropouts, and nearly everyone went on to college. And then there were the few who switched from Bromfield to Monty Tech (Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School). We didn’t hear or speak of them much. No one ever said it out loud, but they were considered the ones who couldn’t hack it in the traditional public school system. They were “the dumb kids.” They’d never go to college, and college was all that mattered.

I enjoyed working with my hands. As much as I’d sit through Algebra 2 wondering when I’d ever use it in the real world, I could see exactly how knowledge of photography and printing could help if I was to become a journalist someday. I’m much better at figuring out problems I can put my hands on, like a broken suspension, than solving quadratic equations or remembering the precise date of the Treaty of Paris. Shop and graphic arts classes were among my favorites. I also helped start an amateur radio club, having been licensed at age 15 and showing an aptitude in electronics as well as mechanical stuff. But in a school geared mainly toward college preparation, the fact that I got good grades across the board mattered more than an aptitude for making or fixing things. Due to that, and the stigma against those who switched to vocational school, I stuck to the college path. I majored in English/Communications, with concentrations in broadcasting and writing.

At least I’m putting that writing part to use. I rode the dot com boom as a technical writer, creating software documentation that nobody ever reads. When that bubble burst in the early 2000s, I was out of work. I became one of those people working menial jobs and struggling to make ends meet for a number of years. Only in the last couple of years have I gotten back into that field as my day job and finally gotten some stability back into my life. (Auto journalism is fun, but the occasional free sample and press car doesn’t pay the bills.)

Justin driving a fork lift
I was an awesome fork lift driver. Cunning hat, don’t you think?

What Could Have Been

I wonder what turns my life would’ve taken down a vocational route instead. Even in high school I was taking bicycles completely apart, putting them back together again, racing on them, and surviving. Becoming an auto or motorcycle tech would’ve been a completely natural progression. In modern American society, there will ALWAYS be cars and motorcycles needing repair, no matter how the economy is doing. There is no bursting bubble like the dot coms. No dealer will suddenly decide, “We don’t really need our service department – let’s lay them all off and save a few bucks.” That’s exactly what’s happened to me in technical writer and IT positions.

It’s not quite as simple as that, I know. I’ve heard horror stories from friends working for sleazy shops and dumb dealers about being overworked, underpaid, treated poorly, etc. I also have friends who have had great experiences working for shops, and one friend who owns a shop of his own. People move from company to company all the time now, whatever the industry. The days of working for the same company all your life retired with the baby boomers. My point is that even if an individual job as an auto or motorcycle tech was bad, short of the collapse of civilization itself there will never be a shortage of available work.

Justin standing in engine bay
Sometimes I really get into my work.

Only dumb people go into trades where they work with their hands, right? Wrong. The truth is that your hands are no good unless you have the brains to use them properly. I’m a pretty smart guy, but I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been doing a repair on my own and simply couldn’t figure out how to make it work. I’m lacking the years of training and experience that a professional auto tech has. Sure, a shop is also equipped with tools the average shadetree mechanic like me doesn’t have, but again, without the knowledge of how to use them properly, they’re no good. You need both brains and brawn (or preferably tools with an excellent mechanical advantage) to be a professional mechanic. Otherwise your engine removals may look more like this.

Perhaps that’s why, in this era of political correctness, we’ve stopped calling them “mechanics” and began calling them “auto technicians.” It’s similar to changing the name of “stewardess” to “flight attendant.” It’s not just political correctness – the new terms convey a higher level of skill than the former designations did because a higher level of skill is required to do the job. Flight attendants are trained to do much more than serve you drinks and show you how to use a seat belt. They’ll also save your butt during an in-flight emergency, thanks to their specialized training about the aircraft’s safety systems and emergency procedures. Similarly, auto techs do far more than point to the connecting rod falling out of your busted engine block saying “well THERE’S your problem!” If fixing cars was so easy, we’d all be fixing them in our driveways.

Plus, modern cars are all computerized. We’re fortunate that you can get a simple WiFi or Bluetooth OBD2 interface for under $10 these days, with apps a-plenty to read and clear codes. But how, exactly, do you interpret a P0340 camshaft position sensor error when your particular car doesn’t even have a camshaft position sensor? It’s the auto tech’s training and experience that tells him that when a Saturn S series throws that error it really means that there’s a misfire and he should check the ignition system.

Not An Old Boys’ Club

Dirt and nail polish

I said “he,” but let’s not be sexist. There’s no reason why women can’t wrench besides societal norms that say they should be playing with dolls instead. Screw that. Right Wrist Twist writer Kate Murphy is far better at motorcycle wrenching than I’ve ever been. I ask her advice about motorcycles regularly because she knows her stuff. When she fixed a flat tire for me I had to take this picture to show both the dirt on her hands and her nail polish. Brilliant!

And then there was the time I went to Midas to get my Civic wagon’s muffler welded back on until I could replace it properly. The cute girl at the counter took my information and my keys. It’s not unusual for a place like this to have a cute girl at the counter to help customers and lessen the blow of an expensive repair bill. But then, much to my surprise, she drove my car into a bay, put it up on a lift, and welded it herself. The joke was on me for assuming she was just a pretty face, and rightfully so. Her repair did exactly what I needed – it held the exhaust together until I could afford and purchase a proper replacement.

Girls' Life updated
Image credit: Katherine Young

Unfortunately, women and young girls face a great deal of pressure not to pursue such “manly” endeavors. Instead they’re pressured to look pretty and pursue careers that society considers more appropriate for women, such as nursing or administrative assistants (they’re not just “secretaries” anymore). While these are important jobs, why shouldn’t a girl who’s interested in science, technology, or mechanical skills receive the same encouragement to pursue them as boys? A lack of a Y chromosome didn’t prevent the girl at Midas from welding up my exhaust, or stop Kate from operating a tire mounting machine. The Vikings understood this – shield maidens fought alongside male warriors in battle. It’s too bad that modern male-dominated society has lost sight of this. Until 1920 women weren’t even allowed to vote in the US. That’s less than 100 years ago!

Avoiding Crippling Debt

Crippling debt

College is, as we say in my native Massachusetts, “wicked expensive.” Two college age friends of mine recently moved to Germany for free college tuition. It’s sad that literally fleeing the country has become a more viable option to get an affordable education than even the state school they previously attended.

Yet some people, like Evan Fischbach of Saline, Michigan, are making $40,000 a year straight out of high school as an auto tech. That’s darn good money, especially for a 19 year old. The big push to send everyone to college has left local dealers scrambling to find anyone with a clue and handy with a wrench to employ in their service departments. “I’m not rich,” says Fischbach, “But I’m not hurting, either.” Personally, I’d rather be happy than rich any day.

Fischbach may never have a cushy desk job pulling down a six or more figure salary per year. Or maybe he will, if he sticks it out in the industry and goes into management. He could become the Captain Kirk of service managers, reaching a high ranking position at an unusually young age. Regardless, Fischbach likes working on cars, and has found a way to make a good living doing it without the massive expense of going to college. He could certainly take classes, earn certifications, and such, but it’s great to see that some places still offer on-the-job training instead of only hiring people with prior experience, which prevents the vicious Catch-22 cycle of those without experience having no way to gain the experience they need to get hired.

I’m not saying don’t go to college. It’s by far the preferred way to go these days, and not having a degree can severely limit your employment opportunities, especially if you’re young and lacking experience. But I believe that there is no one right way for everyone. If your talents and interests tend more toward working on cars than theoretical physics, you should not only be allowed but encouraged to pursue that. At least some rudimentary vocational training should return to our schools so that students have a chance to try it out, get their feet wet, and see if a more vocational education is right for them. And the stigma of vocational school being for “the dumb kids” needs to disappear. Even those on a college-bound path would benefit from some basic training with tools and fabrication.

You hear about the demise of the middle class all over the news these days. Perhaps encouraging vocational training is a way to refill the diminishing ranks of the middle class, provide a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work, and avoid a lifetime of indentured servitude to pay off student loans.


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