Ensuring the Future

Aug. 1, 2016
Chris Monroe works with the local school system to provide quality technicians for the industry

Chris Monroe doesn’t even bother introducing himself. He just paces the classroom, walks right up to a student, stretches out his hand and asks: “What’s your name, and why are you here?”

Penny Clontz recalls this moment with such clarity because, as the career development coordinator for Crest High School’s technical education program in Shelby, N.C., this was a first. For 20 years, it had been a struggle to motivate students to care about their futures, to help them understand the realities of working in a trade.

And Monroe was making it look easy.

“He would say, ‘This is what you did wrong; this is how you shake hands,’” she says. “That sounds simple, but so many of these students don’t know how to do that, how to look somebody in the eyes. They don’t have basic people skills. There hasn’t been anybody to teach them that.”

As the second-generation owner of Monroe Tire & Service in Shelby, Monroe will go on—just as he has for the past 10 years—to host these Crest automotive students at his shop. It’s part of an internship rotation involving several area shops that has not only fueled a youthful passion for the industry, but hired many Crest students throughout the years.

It’s a Dirty Job...

Monroe remembers Mike Rowe, star of the television program Dirty Jobs, saying these words in an interview with TV host Bill Maher:

“I have a theory, and it’s based only on the 50 states I visited, the 300 jobs I did and the people I talked to … but nobody is talking about this overarching disconnect between the educational system we have, the employers we have, the students we have, the parents they have, the guidance counselors we have and the students they advise—and that gap is really the place between blue and white collar work. And it’s in that gap that about three million jobs have fallen.”

Rowe is referring to the “skills gap.” It stems from the ManpowerGroup’s “Talent Shortage Survey,” which reports that, of 38,000 employers surveyed, 32 percent had difficulty filling jobs due to lack of talent in various fields. Those fields ranged from healthcare to engineering to—what Rowe is advocating for—trade positions. In July 2013 when he was interviewed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 3.6 million unfilled job openings.

Today, that number stands at 5.8 million.

Monroe, who took over his father’s shop in 2007, is troubled by these figures. As he’s grown the $1.6-million shop from three to eight bays, he’s experienced the difficulty of finding quality technicians.

Like Rowe, Monroe understands: Kids don’t find trade jobs glamorous enough; they don’t think auto repair pays well; their parents expect them to attend four-year universities. But instead of complaining, Monroe wants to do something about it—for his shop, for all shops.

In fact, Monroe doesn’t even beat around the bush: He wants to be the Mike Rowe of automotive repair.

“We need to have a better supply of trade skills, whether you’re HVAC, whether you’re an auto mechanic, whether you’re a plumber. Trades need a spotlight,” he says. “They’re being told, ‘You’re in the automotive class because you’re a dummy. So go fix cars.’ It’s an image problem, and it’s my passion to fix it.”

Getting On Board

Of the four public high schools in Cleveland County, N.C., only one has an automotive department—and Tony Fogleman, career and technical education director for Crest High School, claims it’s one of the best.

“Of all our technical education departments, we have the best setup with automotive,” he says. “I think it’s just how we’ve had everyone come together, how we’ve had the support of the local businesses willing to work with these students.”

When Fogleman joined Crest eight years ago, he joined Monroe and Clontz. They all came together through the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation (NATEF), which helps schools form local advisory committees of industry professionals, bridging the gap between education and industry. On the committee, Monroe—also a Tire Industry Association board member—and several other area shops offer notes on curricula, help set up career days, provide updates on the latest industry trends and technology, visit classrooms, and host students.

In the Classroom

As Monroe shakes each student’s hand, he sends the “dead fish” handshakes to the front of the class.

“Do you know why you’re up here?” he asks. “Because when you go in for a job interview, your handshake has already ruined your chances.”

You might find Monroe’s unorthodox approach harsh, but Clontz claims it’s been huge for motivating students.

“They usually get tired of hearing the same speech from instructors,” she says. “It’s important for it to come from outside the school, someone in the business.”

And with one shot to speak with students each school year, Monroe takes the 40 minutes available to heart. He lays out his routine for engaging and motivating students:

Get on their level. Monroe doesn’t shake each student’s hand for show—it’s strategy. He treats the relationship like a professional one, offering to be a resource down the road.

Start a conversation. The questions students usually ask are “lame,” Monroe says. Instead, he engages students by asking what they know about auto repair. Then he can gauge their expectations, enlighten them to the realities of the business, and discuss the internship.

Offer students a “real job.” He then discusses the internship like an actual job. Administrators have jumped on board with Monroe’s willingness to “fire” students if they don’t take their jobs seriously.

“If you don’t act like an employee or decide you don’t give a crap, we’re sending you home—you’re fired,” he says to students.

Discuss the skills gap. Monroe doesn’t just mention the overflow of available jobs for technicians—he shows them through a video presentation featuring industry celebrities (like Bogi Lateiner) and, of course, the Mike Rowe interview. He’s hoping the video can be distributed by an organization to motivate shop owners across the country.

“I wanted to show students in Minnesota, in Florida, in Texas, in Virginia how our trade works and let them know the opportunities that exist,” he says. “I think it could change the landscape.”

Hosting Students

The internship program typically hosts between 15–20 Crest automotive students. In groups, students cycle between seven NATEF committee members—four independent shops, two dealerships and one parts store—spending two weeks at each facility during school.

“We want them to come in and work with us, look at how we all do things differently, find what suits them best,” Monroe says.

Each session at Monroe’s shop begins with a sit-down orientation in his office, where he discusses tire nomenclature and his expectations. “I’m going to set the stage, let them know my employees are here to help,” he says. “I say, ‘If you engage these guys, they’ll engage you. If you just cross your arms and do the bare minimum? You won’t get anything out of this.’”

He also provides a checklist that outlines all the tasks students must complete—from tire rotations to suspension inspections to brake pad replacements—while moving between four shop departments: tire, oil, alignment and brakes.

Once Monroe goes over the checklist and schedule, he pairs students up with technicians, who are instructed to cover portions of the checklist. Monroe wants students to take initiative and perform work at their own pace. As vehicles come through, they will fix flat tires, replace rotors, inspect fluids—just like it’s a real job.

Students also track their activity in a journal. Then, at the end of two weeks, they critique his shop’s performance.

“It gives us insight into what we could be doing better to inspire them,” he says. “Also, the techs know they’re making a journal, so it helps everyone be accountable and cordial.”

Ensuring the Future

The ultimate goal is, of course, turning internships into full-time careers. Clontz says that in Cleveland County, 93 percent of career technical education concentrators go on to postsecondary education or advanced training, military service, or employment. As for Crest’s automotive program, Clontz says students have landed jobs every year the internship program has been in place.

While Monroe hasn’t hired any students himself, he has gladly helped them find employment at area shops and continued to serve as a mentor. Because, in the end, it’s not about getting ahead of competition—whether you’re Mike Rowe or just another shop owner, everyone should play a part in ensuring the future of auto repair.

“It’s tough letting good kids go, but I know it’s the right thing,” Monroe says. “We can’t always commit to them in high school, but at least hopefully we can plant the seed for them moving forward.”

NATEF Update

It’s been two years since Ratchet+Wrench spoke with NATEF president Trish Serratore. Here’s an interview with Serratore, who provides update on the foundation’s mission to improve automotive repair education:

How far has NATEF’s reach spread since we last spoke?
We have roughly 2,300 accredited programs right now nationwide, and that’s a combination of automobile, medium/heavy truck collision programs, both high school and postsecondary. We have programs in every state.

We currently have over 10,000 students we’ve identified as having met AYES (Automotive Youth Educational Systems) criteria, meaning they have had some job shadowing. They’ve gone through the SkillsUSA personal development program. They have a decent GPA. WE pre-screen, them, and we have about 10,000 kids nationwide who have met one or all of those criteria. By the end of the school year, about 1,000 of them will have gotten internships. That's a small amount, but if you work the program, they could be with your business.

How has the foundation’s approach to curricula changed over the past two years?
We moved away from a very vertical accreditation process to more of a tiered program accreditation. So now programs can be accredited at the maintenance and light repair level; they can be accredited in what we call automotive service technology; and then we have programs that are accredited at the master automotive service technology, which means they’re teaching all the tasks contained in the automobile task list and have a minimum of 1,200 hours to do so.

Most of our high schools accredit at the maintenance and light repair level, and that requires 540 hours minimum. And then most of our post secondaries are accredited at that master level. That has to do with the amount of time high schools have to teach automotive technology.

These changes have been received very positively from the schools. It allow the high schools to focus on those fundamental skills, and provides the ability to give them a look at all the systems in a vehicle and prepare them for that next step, whether it’s going right through the work force or on to a post-secondary education.

How can shop owners reach out and work with the foundation?
It’s really easy. They can go to NATEF.org, and right on our homepage, we have what we call an accredited school locator. They can put in their zip code and city, and it will identify them with all the accredited programs in their neighborhood

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