Getting into the game
Topeka, Kan.—After first hosting the events in 2016, the Collision Repair Education Foundation has grown the number of its transportation career fairs to 20 this year, partnering with the TechForce Foundation. Debuting Oct. 11 at Washburn University Institute of Technology’s Automotive Collision Repair program, the Kansas High School & College Transportation Career Fair drew more than 550 students in automotive service, collision repair, and diesel repair, some of whom brought resumes. It’s the first of what’s planned to be an annual event, said Eric Showalter, instructor for the program.
Faith Schoovaerts, territory manager for PPG Automotive Refinish in Des Moines, Iowa, is a recent graduate of the program, and she was on the lookout for her customers and prospects who may be looking for employees.
“If they want to be an estimator, a painter, or a technician, I can pass along their information,” she said. “At some point, if they decide they want to sell paint, great. But let’s get them in the shops and working.”
Some students at the fair already earned college degrees but returned for additional education. Hannah Quinteros, who has an Associate Degree in Horticultural Science, loves landscaping and design, but “it’s super seasonal,” she said. She grew up around cars and currently works at College Body Shop in Topeka, Kan., while she attends Washburn Tech full time.
“I enjoy fixing cars, because everything is different every day,” she said. “One of my favorite things to do is to match colors.”
Tonya Heslet is a nontraditional student in more than one sense; she graduated years ago with a bachelor’s degree in art history, also studying French and Italian, languages she taught as a private tutor in Italy and Malta before heading back to school last year for her second career. As a divorced mother, she said she found herself at the mercy of shops where she felt taken advantage of. She wanted to learn how to repair her cars herself, and she “had a sneaking suspicion” she would like to make it her career, she said, rationalizing if she didn’t, she’d still have new skills to take care of her own vehicles.
She graduated from Washburn Tech’s Automotive Service Technology program last year, and is enrolled in the Auto Collision program this year. While she attends school full time from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., she works from 10 to 12 hours a week at family-owned Frye’s Auto Repair.
It was her involvement with the school’s Recycled Rides program, for which it will award its 25th vehicle in December, that led her to be interested in collision repair, she said.
“I’ll wait until I get to the end of collision repair to decide what I like more. I’m just getting started, and I haven’t even been in the paint booth yet. But I just started welding, and it is so much fun.”
Kansas City Kansas Community College brought 32 high school and 20 post-secondary students to the fair, said Instructor Greg Buckner, adding that the school’s technical programs enrollment have been up 5 to 10 percent each year for the past five years. Part of the growth in class sizes is from publicity about needed jobs.
“They hear in the news there are more technical jobs out there,” he said, adding the school recruits at local junior high and high schools and hosts “Hot Careers Day,” in which high school students spend as much as 45 minutes in each program.
Managers of the parts, service, and collision repair departments represented Wichita, Kan.’s, Davis-Moore Chevrolet. The dealership hosts its own career fair in March, and Service Manager Jeff Williams said it’s important to show students how the industry has grown into one requiring skills more befitting an electrical engineer. At the Davis-Moore fair, “halo” cars such as a Z06 Corvette draw the students’ attention, with a scan tool commanding lights and wipers to turn on and help illustrate the technology.
“We encourage kids to bring their parents so we can change the stigma of ‘You’re just a grease monkey.’ Kids who go into this program will be the technicians of the future, and they’re going to be able to make a serious amount of money. They can make a six-figure paycheck and go home clean every day.”
The future is bright for technical education, said Kerry Norbury, Washburn Tech associate director of Admissions, who would like more parents to realize the potential.
“They still have the 1970s and 1980s mindset of technical education: that it is for kids not going to college, instead of for kids who are going to college, perhaps, but want to graduate with minimal debt.”