Huddled over the engine of 1968 Chrysler 300, a handful of Missoula high school students puzzled over the car’s oil leak on Tuesday afternoon.
A tweak here, a trail of oil there, the trouble spot was soon found and talk began on how to fix it with Tom Leik, head automotive teacher for Missoula County Public Schools.
Soon, the appropriate tools were pulled out and the clank of work in action sounded in the tidy garage crowded with other vehicles – other works in progress – that make up Montana Automotive Technologies.
The unique six-year-old partnership between MCPS and the automotive nonprofit that trains high school students in the auto mechanic trade has become so successful, other communities around the country are modeling the program, said Alan Ault, president of Montana Automotive Technologies.
“We are being copied around the nation because high schools across the country have taken auto mechanics out of the schools because it’s too costly,” Ault said. “We work on older model cars because they are simpler, and we work on the electric, interior, body, engine, transmission and brakes.”
At the heart of this program is a hands-on experience for students, who learn the basics of automotive care, including tire care, and by the end of the school year leave with enough knowledge and skill to gain an entry-level job, Leik explained.
“We meet in a classroom on Mondays for 90 minutes, and on Tuesdays we are in the shop working on cars and trucks from 1:30 to 5 p.m.”
Wednesdays, which have been dedicated to tire care, will soon become the day students will study the electrical side of the trade.
Leik is the head instructor, but the teaching happens with the help of community mentors – auto mechanics and a handful of shops – that donate time, skills and sometimes a place to learn.
Places like Harold Jacob’s machine shop, V-Tec Auto Repair, Transolution Auto Care and Town & Country Auto Body are to be credited with the program’s success.
Except for Leik’s time and expertise, which ensure MCPS students are receiving a rigorous education in keeping with the district’s criteria, Montana Automotive Technologies doesn’t cost anything to students and taxpayers, Ault said.
The programming survives on private financial donations, grants, donated cars, cars the students fix up and raffle off, and donated time from volunteer instructors who work with Leik.
One of Leik’s favorite parts of the program is watching the transformation of his students as they gain confidence and skills throughout the year.
“What makes this really unique is that we have mentors from the community that volunteer, and our student-mentor ratio is three students to one mentor,” Leik said. “So what happens is that if I have 20 students sitting in a classroom on Mondays listening to me talk and explain things, I’m just hoping they are getting the information,” he said. “But on Tuesdays, when groups of two to three students spend the day working with a mentor, the students get it.
“The learning and understanding happens in the shop.”
Between the auto mechanic studies and the tire technician certification program, students who leave the program are prepared for entry-level jobs in the business – jobs that start at $10 an hour, Leik said.
With more experience and education, pay for mechanic work climbs quickly to $15 an hour, then to $25 an hour.
In the oil fields and in other heavy industry fields, diesel mechanics can earn upward of $80,000 a year.
These salaries don’t go unnoticed by the students who were learning by doing Tuesday.
“Mechanics earn good money in mine companies and with oil rigs,” said Beau Albright, a 17-year-old Sentinel High School student.
Although Albright is still considering all his post-graduation options, one is to go to diesel school.
“I’ve been working with stuff like this since I was 7 years old,” Albright said while tinkering on an engine. “I had high expectations for this class and I’m learning good stuff.”
He, like the rest of his classmates in the garage, believe auto mechanics is a lost art and the education they are receiving in the garage at 2100 W. Sussex Ave. is a point of pride.
“We are learning a skill that is disappearing and is becoming lost because no else knows how to do this work,” he said.
Kole Campbell agreed with Albright’s sentiments and believes the garage classroom offers him some of the most interesting lessons so far in his high school career.
“It’s hands-on,” said the 18-year-old Sentinel student. “I see it as more productive than any other class. Every week I’m learning new and interesting things.”
As he and Albright worked on an engine, Campbell also said he liked the thrill of challenges that mechanic work supplies.
“I like the puzzle part of figuring out problems – and it’s always fun to make things go fast.”
The yearlong course is open to junior and senior students from Missoula’s three high schools, Ault explained.
This year, there are about 22 students. Last year’s class of 24 had 21 seniors, all of whom graduated.
Of those students, three are in the military, two are in a welding program at the University of Montana’s Missoula College, seven are continuing auto-related programs at Montana State University-Northern, three are currently working in auto-related jobs and one is an engineering student at MSU.
Ault is proud of the program’s results, but moreso, he’s proud of the students who are learning skills that will strengthen our communities, and our country.
“We need the trades,” Ault said, “and the United States is weak on trades. We are working with kids who will become our tradesmen.”
Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.