BROOKINGS — Rick Grimsley is in his seventh year at Brookings High School, teaching technical automotive service and maintenance skills to juniors and seniors. Following two years of his courses, his students can upon graduation enter the work force as automotive technicians or go on to a technical college and further hone their skills in a particular area of automotive maintenance. Eight to 10 of his former students are working in the automotive industry around town.
“A lot of them don’t go on to school after high school,” Grimsley explained. “They’d rather go to a shop and start on-the-job training and learn. That’s how I did it. I took this class when I was in high school. (He graduated from BHS in 1981.) I contemplated going to Lake Area (Technical College). I was signed up and everything; but then I had the opportunity to go directly to work, so I did that. You can learn a whole lot that way, too. You’re learning absolutely what you need to know without a lot of other stuff.”
He noted that going to a technical college can be spendy. Some students can’t swing it on their own; and there are not a lot of high-dollar scholarships available. There are some full-ride scholarships out there, but the student has to find a sponsor and agree to work for that sponsor for up to maybe three years following graduation.
Following graduation from BHS, Grimsley went on to spend more than 30 years in the automotive industry, including 18 years as service manager of a local GM Dealership and in his own business, on the road for 16 years selling maintenance equipment to service shops and dealerships and teaching technicians how to use the equipment.
Technicians, not mechanics
“The automotive world anymore is 180 degrees different from what it was when I took this class,” the teacher said, dispelling one myth/urban legend: “The old days of the Gomer-Goober gas station mechanic on The Andy Griffith Show are long gone. I don’t use the term ‘mechanic’ anymore. That term came about when cars were mechanical; nowadays they’re 90 percent not mechanical. It’s mostly computer-driven and electronic. It takes a whole different level of student to go into that field — and be successful at it.
“You need to know math … electronics, all that type of stuff. That scares some of them away, frankly. The other ones, by going on to school, they’re going to teach you a pretty wide spectrum of everything.”
For those whose goal is to work at a local repair shop doing such things as brakes and tires and not doing such specialty work as transmissions and engine rebuilds, Grimsley recommends: “Why spend the money to go to school, if you’re never going to to do that (specialty work). Get out there and get your niche. If you decide you want to go into transmissions or (some other specialty), you can always go back to school.”
Another option he cited was a “dealership type setting,” such as Ford or some other automotive brand which operates some of their own schools that focus on their products. Following that training, the technician will go to work for the sponsoring dealership.
On the job at ‘Bobcat Garage’
The automotive technician classes at BHS are aimed at juniors and seniors, with a “full-blown driver’s license — not a learner’s permit — ” being the cost of admission to Grimsley’s classes.
“They’re the one pulling the cars in and out,” he explained. “I can’t leave; so if something needs to be test-driven, I have to rely on students to do that.”
And when they’ve completed all the automotive classes during the two years of Grimsley’s tutelage, what did the rookie technicians take away? “If they apply themselves, they will leave here fully able to walk into a repair shop and start out as a general-level lube technician, which is probably where you’re going to start wherever you go.
“You’re going to start out on a lube rack and you’re going to do oil changes, brakes and tires and all that stuff. If you prove to them you’ve got the ability, you start moving up the line. They’ll invest money in you to get additional training.”
The first year at BHS is the intro: “It’s for kids who don’t know anything about cars.” “They’ll be taught how to do a simple oil change; and in this day and age, that means resetting a computer. They will learn to reset tire pressure sensors, monitor tire pressure.
“The computers have crept into all the basic services. There’s not much you can do on a car anymore without dealing with some sort of computer system — even putting air in the tires. “
Grimsley noted that this year he had 18 students signed up for his classes, and more students could sign up; however, he’s limited by the “hands-on” demands of the courses he teaches. “I can’t watch 15 kids at a time,” he explained. “We’re somewhat limited by my ability to oversee them and the size of the shop. We only have three lifts; and most of the stuff we do, you need a lift to do it.”
Two years ago he had his first girl in his class. This year he has two girls completing both years of his classes.
Bottom line: Going into and staying in the world of automotive technology, might by way of analogy be compared to the practice of medicine. “The automotive world now is just like the medical world, where you have your general mechanics who do the day-to-day stuff,” the teacher explained. “If you have a transmission problem, that goes to the transmission specialist. If you have an engine problem, that goes to the engine specialist.
“Not very many techs can do everything. There’s so much information out there, your brain can’t hold everything. If you know a field you want to go into, say you want to be a transmission guy, then a secondary school is probably good for you,” Grimsley explained. “I personally would say, go get a job in a shop. Figure out what the day-to-day is really like.
“That’s the way we run it in here. After the classroom sessions, this basically becomes ‘Bobcat Garage.’ I’m the boss; they’re the employees. It’s kind of like an internship without leaving the school. But it’s only an hour-and-a-half a day.” And it’s not the time crunch of an eight-hour day and the demanding pace of one piece of work after another.”
Contact John Kubal at [email protected]