By Sean Bowes
More than one hundred students at Wesley Chapel High (WCH) are turning their hobbies of tinkering in the garage and turning wrenches into the possibility of a career in the automotive field.
The Academy of Automotive Services at WCH is a fairly new program, as it started at the school just three years ago, but it wasn’t until Jason Hallman, a tattooed motorcycle fanatic from the “Motor City” of Detroit, MI., became the teacher of the course and put the “horsepower back in high school.” Before Hallman’s arrival a year ago, the course was mainly focused on bookwork and was only available as a one-hour elective class.
Now, students who are serious about working on cars have the opportunity to take two class periods of “Auto Block” every day. Hallman says that the feedback from his students has been tremendous. During the summer he was receiving text messages and Saturday night phone calls from students who had questions about cars they were working on over the break.
According to Hallman, the students are not just getting the hands on-experience by working on different makes and models of cars every day. The auto-tech course counts as one year of experience for students who are interested in becoming certified for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE), an accreditation for mechanics that is recognized internationally, which requires two-years of in-shop experience before taking the exam.
“It’s not just for the kids that want to get the ASE,” says Hallman. “All of the guys in the program are going to be someone’s neighbor one day and they’re going to be able to lend a hand.when someone needs their help with something.”
Actually, many of the students already are doing that. Around a small car port in the WCH parking lot, about 15 students are draining oil, taking off brake rotors and checking the on-board diagnostics of different “project vehicles,” which include not only their personal project cars, but also a teacher’s Nissan truck, a guidance counselor’s Honda Accord and, believe it or not, principal Carin Nettles’ Volkswagen, which was due for its 40,000- mile tune up.
“All the lights in my car started blinking and I thought I could smell something burning on the way to school,” says Patti Taylor, a guidance counselor at WCH who dropped off her car that morning. “I was in ‘panic mode. I was going to take it to the dealership until I remembered about the auto shop (program). If it’s broke, they can fix it.”
Later this year, construction will begin on WCH’s new, state-of-the-art, automotive academy building. When completed in January 2013, the facility will feature in-house classrooms and a six-bay service center.
“It will be pretty cool,” said senior Alex Linebaugh. “I’ll be graduated by the time it gets built, but it’s going to be nice for the other students.”
Linebaugh says he doesn’t plan on becoming a career-mechanic, but he values the hands-on experience he gets in the program every day. It also will be useful knowledge for him further down the line, he says, because he plans to study engineering in college.
For those WCH students who are interested in a career as auto mechanics — it doesn’t sound like a bad option considering that a recent report in The New York Times stated that the median starting salary for a college graduate is $27,000, and those grads typically have at least $20,000 in debt from student loans. Mechanics, on the other hand, have a starting salary of around $32,000, and students in the auto shop program are already getting the experience they need before stepping into the workforce.
Hallman says that the program is made possible, partly, with the support of the program’s Auto Advisory Board, members of which have donated tools, parts and even engines to the class, as well as hired former students in the program to work in the automotive field.
The Auto Advisory Board for WCH’s Academy of Automotive Services includes: Wyotech, Wesley Chapel Honda, Wesley Chapel Toyota, Pasco Motors, Wesley Chapel Nissan, Heritage Ford, UTI and Precision Kia.