Students at Fairfax High School’s auto technical program are getting hands-on experience fixing cars, offering a lifeline to careers in the auto mechanic industry.
“For people who don’t have experience working on cars at home, you learn how everything works and how to do things with your hands,” says Sean Harris, 16, a senior at Fairfax High School.
Harris, who works at Ourisman Collision Center in Fairfax, is already applying what he’s learning in class. He even has a job in the industry lined up after his early graduation.
The auto tech program is offered at 13 high schools in Fairfax County and is accredited by the Automotive Service Excellence Foundation. In April, the program got an unexpected boost from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which donated 22 abandoned vehicles to Fairfax County Public Schools.
At Fairfax High School, the auto tech class is taught by John King, an auto mechanic and educator since 1990. With King in the driver’s seat, student interest in the course runs high — of the 100 spaces available, 98 are filled this semester. Part teacher and part mentor to his students, King is adamant that they look for a career that they love, even if it doesn’t include going to college.
“We’re seeing less emphasis on going to a four-year college, but the pressure is still there. You have to be realistic, and not every student wants to go to college,” says King.
To keep up with waves of retiring Baby Boomers, the National Automotive Dealers Association said the industry needs to add nearly 76,000 new mechanics every year to meet demand.
Between King’s teaching and the success of his students, the auto tech program has been turning heads — on October 27, the Virginia National Guard paid a rare visit to Fairfax High School, arriving in a camouflaged Humvee.
During the visit, students had the chance to see how the military performs preventative maintenance on its vehicles, as well as learn about career opportunities with the National Guard after graduation. It was the first time the National Guard had spoken to an auto tech class.
It’s this kind of practical experience that King hopes will show his students how to achieve greater independence, both financially after graduation and personally. “I’m the type of guy that when you ask me what time it is, I’m going to tell you how to build a clock. I try to put my biases aside and show them their options,” says King.
Some of King’s students have found his advice so impactful that they keep in touch and give back when they can. Peter Mancini, one of King’s former students who graduated in 2017, even established a scholarship for senior students of the auto tech program at Fairfax High School, called the Jumpstart Scholarship. Student applications are reviewed by a five-person panel of industry experts, graduates of Fairfax High School, and Mancini himself. The scholarship provides two students with $500 to pay for tools or school supplies. Every year, one scholarship goes to a student who wants to attend college and the other to a student going into the automotive industry.
Mancini, who studied mechanical engineering at UNC Charlotte after graduation, says he is an example of the direction that King provides to his students. In his junior year of college, he went on the road with Jeremy Clements Racing, a NASCAR race team, as a mechanic and tire engineer. Now, Mancini is about to pursue an MBA at Pfeiffer University, while working as a product engineer with Hayward, a company that makes commercial and residential pool equipment.
Giving back to the auto tech program is Mancini’s way of thanking King for his investment in his students. “He gave me my start and helped an 18-year-old who didn’t have direction figure out where he wanted to go,” says Mancini. “But that’s Mr. King. His drive, his passion, and his support of the students make this program what it is,” says Mancini.
For King, partnering with his students to provide life skills is all in a day’s work. Speaking of his teacher, Harris had high words of praise: “He’s always there, really trying to help us fix the problem. Even if he’s never done it before, he helps us find the answers.”
Feature image by Bennett Freeze
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