Under the hood with John Smith

Under the hood with John Smith

John Smith has over four decades of automotive experience. He had been working as a mechanic in Durham, North Carolina when his wife, who is from Carroll County, expressed her desire to move to her hometown, which they did 20 years ago. Starting in 2002, Smith worked at Galax as an automotive instructor until he applied and received the same position at Wythe County Technology Center, where he has been since 2010.

Smith says that in addition to work ethics and job readiness skills, behaviors that every student must learn, learning aspects of electrical and computer fundamentals are key aspects to success in the automotive field. In fact, I immediately found it interesting that he referred to his students as “technicians” rather than “mechanics.”

“Almost everything that involves the mechanics of a vehicle is now controlled by a computer,” he noted. “There are now some cars that are equipped with more than twenty computers.”

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The sign outside his classroom door summarizes the complexity of the current automotive industry.

“It’s not rocket science,” they say. “Sometimes it’s harder than that.”

The primary goal of the automotive program at Wythe County Technology Center is to ensure that each and every student can be employed at an entry level in the vehicle repair industry. Although the level of success varies from student to student, each graduate should potentially be able to enter a workshop and independently change and repair tires, successfully change oil, flush radiators, and acquire other basic maintenance skills.

“I’m trying to go as deep as I can given the time we have,” Smith said. “We spend a lot of time on the electrical part of the curriculum.”

Smith follows a state-mandated curriculum. He must also complete assignments required by the Automotive Service Excellence Education Foundation to earn the certification required for all high school automotive programs. This basic certification covers basic maintenance and light repairs for any motor vehicle. A total of ten separate certifications for entry-level technicians are available through the ASE, each lasting two years. If a technician decides to advance to the professional level and passes their retest at that point, these certifications can become professional certifications. The local program also works with the National Coalition of Certification Centers and Snap-On Tools to provide custom certifications for things like the tire machine, multimeters, and snap-on scan tools.

Depending on the student’s individual diligence, they can leave with more than sixteen certificates, according to Smith. Smith teaches two levels of automotive engineering courses and says many of his second-level students graduated last year with fifteen or sixteen separate certifications.

“It depends on the student and how far they want to take it,” Smith noted. “Last year, the majority of our students graduated with over 10 certifications.”

Before the pandemic, Smith taught about 30 students each year. Now he’s an average of 20, but hopes that number will increase in the future. While hoping for more students, he says the small numbers allow for more hands-on experience for the individual student.

“We have an incredible need for automotive repair technicians as there are far more jobs than field technicians,” he added. “We have technicians in this county who make more than $85,000 a year. It’s also a portable job. The requirements as a technician in Wythe County are the same as in New York or California.”

Although most of his students are engaged, Smith occasionally gets a student who will be disappointed with the course.

“Some might think we’re going to work on race cars,” he said. “It’s a completely different animal. When students attend NASCAR Tech School in Mooresville, North Carolina, they better be top of their class to get hired by a race team.”

One of Smith’s former students makes top dollar as a BMW technician in Charlottesville. Another is Ford Master Engineer at Bob Huff in Wytheville. Several other potential success stories can include students who may never get into automotive but work in areas like HVAC and take things they learned in the Automotive Technology course like air conditioning with them. He also had a graduate degree from NASCAR Tech School as well as the Auto Diesel School in Nashville, Tennessee, where technicians work with heavy machinery like 18-wheelers.

As for the future of the auto industry, Smith says computers are the name of the game. This is especially true given the increasing number of electric cars available in the vehicle market today.

“Computers were built into cars in 1980,” he explained. “I’ve seen mechanics who could do anything with a car in 1979 and couldn’t make a living as mechanics in 1990. Today, computers in cars are much more complicated than the ones that put astronauts on the moon in 1969.”

“Everyone needs to understand that technicians are paid for the knowledge they possess and that comes from experience,” concluded Smith. “I want all of our students to become so employable that they gain more and more experience in exchange for greater knowledge.”

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