Dealing kids a better future

Local car dealerships mentor Renton students for future careers

Auto shops were a staple in many high schools 30 years ago. But today, the field has changed. Career Technical Education (CTE) classes have been on the decline for U.S. high school students since the ’90s, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

O’Brien Auto Group Regional Manager Paul Lee said he never wanted to be in the car business growing up, but needed a job out of college in the ’80s. Getting someone young is about the only way to set up technicians for success, he said. But as CTE programs declined, the recruiting became more difficult, and it’s gotten harder for car dealerships to find needed technicians.

“It seems to be if you are not an athlete, or somebody in the music department, some of these kids fall between the cracks,” Lee said. “But (technician careers) are a viable pathway.”

Today educators, including those in Renton School District, are trying to lift career training to the option it once was. And in the process of starting a new mentor program, students who are struggling or at risk are being supported by the community outside schools. That’s something CTE Worksite Learning Coordinator Terry Derrig said should be happening.

“Sometimes people think it’s just a school’s responsibility (to help students), but I think it’s everybody’s,” Derrig said. “And it’s a very rewarding job.”

The school district, Mentor Washington and Communities in Schools in Renton-Tukwila (CISR) partner with Renton auto dealerships to offer paid positions where high school students are mentored by an employee at the dealer, offering the student both job-training and someone to look up to.

In this auto mentor program, which is in its first few years, students are paid to work after school with their mentors and they also receive a half-credit for every 180 hours. Students express interest to Derrig or are identified through a CISR liaison in the high schools. Then they complete a resume, use a job-matchmaking test to make sure the position would be a good fit and do multiple interviews.

The mentors at the dealerships have been trained by CISR, one of the partners in this program to give opportunities to at-risk youth. CISR previously had a mentoring part of its mission that connects caring adults in the community with a student who is facing barriers outside the classroom. CISR Development Director Kathy Ulrich said their standard training teaches the mentors about diversity, equity, inclusion, how low-income and poverty can cause trauma in students’ lives, and how it might manifest in interns during the program.

“These interns might have more challenges, but if you meet those challenges head-on you are going to get a hardworking, very dedicated staff member out of it,” Ulrich said. “Their environment and circumstances do not dictate who they are. They are capable of great futures and accomplishments.”

A new program

The program started when a founding CISR board member joined the board for Mentor Washington and got the idea to create a mentor program, through Renton auto dealers, that would offer journeyman training.

Mentor Washington is a nonprofit that works closely with the State Department of Children and Youth Families in a public/private partnership, Senior Project Director Claude Green said.

In turn, car dealerships that have experienced high turnover in technicians receive trainable young people. Today auto mechanic shops are different, they’re focused on STEM skills, tech-based and each company does things a little differently, Derrig said. That’s why the hands-on opportunity is so important for students who are interested in being technicians. The first student who started in the auto mentor program in Renton schools is now almost a master technician.

Three years ago, Walker’s Renton Subaru was having a hard time finding people to replace technicians that were starting to retire. technician jobs are well-paying, Owner Dale Walker said, but there’s a lack of awareness. Then they were approached to help start the auto mentor program.

Nick Romo, at the time a high school senior, started as the first mentee for the Mazda dealership as an apprentice technician. He was a natural. Romo told an interviewer, in a Renton Schools video about the program from 2018, that it was an eye opener for the level of work ethic needed in a shop like that.

Romo was determined to make a career of it, he said in the interview. Since then, Romo had to leave Mazda to move to Los Angeles. But he had a job waiting for him. Walker said with the skills Romo learned he could go anywhere and is now almost a master technician.

The dealerships involved in this are also offering other jobs for the mentees, including accounting, servicing and parts replacement positions.

Ulrich, the CISR development director, said having an authority figure around the students helps them grow and thrive. Students that are at-risk may also struggle with work ethic. The mentorship program offers them a chance to not only gain technical skills, but slowly adjust to the responsibilities of a working environment.

In one example of a pass mentee, Walker said the student had simply stopped showing up for the job. Instead of writing them off, the dealership reached out to the district. It turned out the student had just lost his housing. With the help of CISR and other resources, they got the student temporary housing and he was able to continue the apprenticeship.

Walker said they’ve learned from participating in the program that students who suffer in their personal life can have a flight or fight instinct. They bring that into the work environment— some just run away when it’s hard. But with patience, and mentors who get involved with students personally, not just professionally, Walker said they’ve had several mentee success stories so far.

“It’s breaking the cycle of poverty,” Ulrich said. “Providing a work life with leadership who understand and appreciate where (students) are coming from, who they are, and having mentors there to coach you... is really creating a stable environment for the student to land.”

A new partner

Right now a few students are in the program starting with a new partner, Toyota of Renton, a member of the O’Brien Auto Group. O’Brien Regional Manager Paul Lee said they’ve been moving quickly to get involved in the apprenticeship.

O’Brien already had a mentor-style offering for existing employees before being approached by the groups involved in the auto mentor program, so it was an easy transition. Lee said it was amazing how many employees stepped forward and offered to be a mentor. He said the mentor’s are gaining something important just as much as the mentees.

“After doing a job for 20 years, you know, you get up and go to work (each day). Then you finally are presented with an opportunity to make a difference in a young person’s life. It’s cool to see it goes both ways,” Lee said.

Lee said he’s talked to other O’Brien regional managers about the program and what Project Director Claude Green is doing—believing in kids and making a difference with resources from Mentor Washington. Lee said people in the community want the chance to make that difference for students, too.

Some of the students have had to try to figure out life on their own, Lee said. In this program, the kids get the reassurance and guidance they need to grow. He said they encourage mentors to make sure students have the money, resources, and food they need outside of work as well.

After graduation, students in the auto mentor program can either continue with their work at the shop, work part time and attend school part time at Renton Technical College, or drop it and decide it’s not right for them. At Walker’s Renton, district CTE coordinator Derrig said the split for students who continued school or went full time at the shop was about 50-50.

“They’re getting transferable job skills that will help them in any career later on. At least they started down that path (in high school),” Derrig said. “They get the mentorship they need to get through this difficult time, high school is difficult for a lot of these students. They have responsibilities they shouldn’t have to have.”

So far, the program has been just in the Renton community. But with CISR’s recent expansion to Tukwila, there are plans for Tukwila School District to also offer the auto mentor program at dealers there, including another O’Brien partner, Acura of Seattle.

Ulrich said for CISR, the program is still in its early stages and hasn’t received enough mentees yet to gauge its success. Moving forward, the groups working together are hoping to expand to more dealerships and get the word out to students and families that this option is available. Derrig said she wants students to know that paths to trades outside a college education are really available to them, and can result in high wages and rewarding careers.