Students learn the basics of auto mechanics

Work on a $45,000 Chevrolet Tahoe in Havelock High’s auto mechanics class begins with the simplest of lessons.

“Lefty loosey, righty tighty.”

Student Hunter Martin had to remember that lesson as he went to loosen a bolt to change the oil on that Tahoe during Friday’s class. Instructor Tommy Andrews runs the class as if it was a real garage, with the goal to help the students learn what work in the field is like, work that can net experienced technicians in high-end dealerships a six-figure salary.

Along with the oil change, students rotated the tires on the Tahoe, too. They also searched for the source of a leak in a Honda Insight.

“It’s fun, I learned a lot,” said senior Caleb Barclay, who plans on pursuing an auto mechanics career after enlisting in the Marine Corps.

He said he knew little about cars when he took his first auto class. Now, he’s on his third.

“The only thing I knew was to put the key in the ignition and go,” he said. “When it started acting up, I would have to go to Baldree’s or another mechanic.”

Junior Austin Adams is more interested in physics than a career as an auto mechanic, but he sees value in the classes.

“I decided this would help me later in life,” he said. “I know I’ll be able to work on my own vehicle and save some money. Financially smart, that’s what that is.”

Andrews, in his third year teaching at Havelock High, said he gets all kinds of students in the auto classes.

“We get the kids who have no clue about the class, and then we have some who know that this is what they want to do,” he said.

Andrews said the goal for students who go through all four of the auto courses at Havelock High is to pass the first of eight levels of Automotive Service Excellence master certification, which he said was light, entry-level repairs. Early classes focus on tools, safety and basic maintenance, such as oil changes, while advance classes work on more in-depth repairs such as brakes, suspensions and even a vehicle’s heating and air system.

“We teach them all the basics, especially on the electrical side,” Andrews said. “If you can get the basics down and use the test equipment, you can go from there.”

He said it’s important to let the students try to solve problems on their own because that’s how it works in the real world.

“I don’t give them all the answers. I let them try to figure it out,” Andrews said. “I let them go as long as they can. I’ll tell them, ‘it’s in the manual. Look it up.’ They’ve got to dig a little bit. When you get started in a shop, the last thing the senior techs want to hear is the new guy coming up asking 1,000 questions on how to do stuff.”

Martin pulled on the wrench – lefty loosey after all – and soon the old oil was draining out of the Tahoe. Christian Wilkerson worked on the oil filter, while Josh Ryales and Adams used an air wrench to work on the tires. At one point, Barclay nearly climbed into the engine compartment of the Tahoe.

The vehicle was on a 3-year-old, $65,000 auto lift.

“It’s state of the art,” Andrews said.

Oil dripped onto Martin’s hand and ran down his arm. Dirt was under his fingernails.

“I enjoy it a lot,” he said. “I worked a lot on cars with my grandpa and my dad. It got me interested in it, so I decided to take the class. I just like working hands-on with stuff.”

Martin has designs to continue auto classes at a community college and then get a job in the field. And that’s a good route to take, said Mike Gray, owner of G and H Tire in Havelock.

“If they get the entry-level stuff at Havelock High and like it, and they put the effort in the two-year program at Craven (Community College), they could definitely get out and get a job making very decent money right from the start,” Gray said. “Somebody would pay them $18 to $20 an hour. A lot of dealerships would love to have them because then they would know that they have a lot of the basics. They would have plenty of opportunities if they get in at a dealership that does a lot of training. It’s a great career.”

Gray said auto technicians are needed. He’s had an opening at his shop for the last two months.

“They’re in super high demand,” he said.

Gray said today’s modern vehicles are often high-tech and require computer diagnostics.

“I’ve been doing this a long time,” Gray said. “I was out there the other day working on a car and I had this electronic device and that electronic device. I’m sitting there with $50,000 worth of tools, and when I started doing it in the early ’80s, I could take everything I needed in two tool boxes and fix almost anything. Now I’ve got four roll-around tool boxes and five different computer systems just to work on them.”

And because of that, he said technicians at high-end dealerships in large markets such as Raleigh can earn anywhere from $70,000 to $120,000 per year.

“I wouldn’t even call them mechanics anymore. I would call them computer technicians,” Gray said.

And it all starts with the simplest of lessons taught at Havelock High School: “Lefty loosey, righty tighty.”

“This is a big industry,” Andrews said. “They can go pretty much anywhere they want and get a job, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. We all have to drive cars.”