Creating Successful Successors: Not Your Typical Auto Shop Class

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For many high school students, employment consists of flipping burgers, sacking groceries or mowing lawns. A team of students at Maplewood High School, which is part of the Metro Nashville Public Schools system (MNPS) in Nashville, Tennessee, are running a Firestone Complete Auto Care Center. This isn’t the typical after school or summer part-time job. Students run the shop as part of their daily studies.

The school has long had an automotive program, teaching students auto repair skills, but this partnership with Bridgestone America — which was announced in August — provides students with more advanced training and certification. It even allows them to learn the day-to-day fundamentals of running a shop.

“Maplewood has had an automotive training curriculum for 40 years,” said Twjuana (TJ) Williams, instructor at the Maplewood High School Automotive Training Center. “We were introduced to Bridgestone in early 2014 through William Thomas, who works for the company. He learned about us through his involvement with the Urban League of Middle Tennessee.”

After learning about the existing program, Thomas and his colleagues devised a program that could help the school advance and enhance it curriculum.

One key difference from other places where students might work part-time is the auto care center is housed in the same building where Williams teaches class.

Bridgestone retrofitted the school’s space to include a new customer waiting area that resembles a Firestone Complete Auto Care store. The company worked closely with the MNPS to get the curriculum ASE-certified and even sent employees to conduct study sessions. This enabled students to prepare for ASE testing and take field trips to Nashville-area Firestone Complete Auto Care stores for on-sight observation.

“Our automotive training curriculum was good, but Bridgestone has helped us elevate it to a whole new level,” Williams said.

Each of the 150 students in the academy has the opportunity to gain the necessary two years of experience and graduate as an ASE-certified technician.

“We’re proud to work in cooperation with Maplewood High School on their automotive training center,” said Stu Crum, president of Bridgestone Retail Operations. “It’s a great facility providing valuable training and curriculum for what may very well be the next generation of automotive and retail professionals. We want to be involved in the communities where we do business in ways that have a direct impact. The automotive training center is a perfect example.”

The program consists of six classes for students in the 10th, 11th and 12th grades, and each has a maximum of 25 students — currently are all full — ensuring each student receives plenty of hands-on experience.

“On an average day, about 18 of our 11th and 12th graders are receiving training in the center, answering phones, writing work orders and working on cars,” Williams said. “The rest of them are in the classroom.”

The partnership with Bridgestone has already been game changing. Since the grand opening in August, Williams said there has been a huge uptick in the number of people who are interested in letting students work on their cars.

“Our community has been really enthusiastic and supportive. Everybody wants in now that they’ve seen what we’ve got going on here,” Williams noted. “Our customers are always surprised by the skill level of the kids and the equipment we have. At first, they have a hard time believing we’re running this kind of facility in a high school.”

This program allows students to see there is a lot more to running a shop than just being able to work on cars. The students at Maplewood High School receive automotive training and learn a lot about the other parts of running a business. This includes developing phone skills, enhancing their face-to-face people skills and even learning how to write work orders. Students also learn about HR, finance, sales, inventory management and much more that students in your basic auto shop class don’t learn.

“They’re also improving their communication and problem-solving abilities and thinking about how to build a career rather than just hold a job,” Williams said.

The interest is already catching on. The day of the grand opening, the school’s assistant principal received an email from an administrator at a neighboring school about the program. Calls have come in from inside the district and well beyond. Some people have stopped by asking for a tour — and suggesting other schools could follow suit.

The timing for such programs could be good and could also help provide valuable training to students seeking employment after high school. Simply Hired, the leading search engine for jobs, reported the number of entry-level job openings for auto mechanics and service tech workers has surged by 14 percent in 2015.

“This increased demand indicates programs like Firestone’s is a smart response to train workers and avoid shortages,” said Simply Hired spokesperson, Renee Newby.

The students in the program are happy to be involved and see it as much more than just another part-time job after school.

“I feel really lucky,” said Felicitas Muniz Ovalle, a first-year student in the program. “I’ve received hands-on training and being a part of the program has also helped boost my self-esteem and confidence. Automotive is a male-dominated industry, and I’m one of just a few girls in the program. Having such a knowledgeable and powerful female instructor has really made a difference for me.”

The program wasn’t built in day. Williams was quick to note it took seven years to lay the, “foundation for this house,” and added, “Now, we just have to keep building.”

The goal remains to give students a skill set they can use after graduation in the automotive industry, or even outside it.

“My fellow educators at Maplewood and I want to get the center to the point where I’m guiding from the sidelines but the kids are able to run it flawlessly on their own,” Williams explained. “This is about our students. We’re in it to achieve the best results we can for these kids.”

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