Troy High’s new auto lab seeks to be a career maker

Joe St. Henry
Special to The Detroit News

Troy — A new automotive lab at Troy High School is sparking interest among students to pursue mechanic careers, as business leaders across the region express concerns over a shortage of skilled-trade professionals, including those capable of working on today’s technology-laden cars and trucks.

Designed to mimic a modern service center, the new lab was born from the joint vision of district educators and local companies who see learning opportunities like this as critical to attracting more young people to the profession.

Students look over the 5.2 liter engine on a Cobra 350 GT during the opening of Troy High School’s auto technology lab on Monday.

Recent U.S. Department of Labor data projects 351 job openings for automotive mechanics across southeast Michigan each year for the next five years. Nationwide, the number of open positions for mechanics is expected to approach 24,000 annually through 2024.

“Schools are recognizing the needs of businesses and providing the right learning opportunities to students,” said Troy School District Superintendent Rich Machesky. “We’re a pipeline to employability, connecting kids with jobs in much-needed fields.”

The high school auto lab’s curriculum prepares students to take the Student ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) and Michigan State Mechanic tests. Passing these opens the door to immediate employment as auto technicians, working in dealership service departments and other repair facilities, according to the school’s automotive instructor Dustin Warner.

“The new lab has generated a lot of excitement,” said Warner, noting there are 81 students enrolled in classes this semester. “Nobody else in our area has anything like it, including other districts or community colleges. There are new students coming in each week to see it.”

While the new lab opened at the beginning of the school year, the official ribbon-cutting ceremony took place on Monday. Machesky said the transformation of the high school’s outdated auto shop would not have been possible without the support of some local businesses.

David Easterbrook, 65, owner of Troy-based AME Companies, a provider of facility design services and equipment to auto dealers across the country, led the efforts to engage outside help. He shared his vision to transform the auto shop with Principal Remo Roncone. The two discussed industry needs and how to develop a world-class instructional center.

“It’s nice to have a dream, and then somebody else tells you to dream bigger,” Roncone said. “The new lab would not have happened without his guidance and support.”

AME Companies donated $20,000 and labor to redesign the classroom with new workstations, desks, shelving, roll carts and tool boxes. Another local business, ImBranded, stepped in to provide dealership graphics and signage throughout the lab. The Suburban Collection Motor Mall in Troy provided lab coats and a $5,000 donation for new tools and equipment. Rousseau Metal donated new cabinetry at cost.

“It was easy to get other companies on board,” Easterbrook said. “The district is providing a good background in automotive technology and preparing students to be certified. When they finish their training after high school, they can have a great job making six figures with no college debt.”

Junior Jacob Exum, 16, plans to be one of these students. He wants to be an auto mechanic and said the new classroom lab is “amazing.”

When he started high school, the shop featured limited supplies and tools. One of the vehicle lifts did not work. Students could not make some of the repairs they were learning about in books, he said.

Today, the lab features three working lifts and the same diagnostic tools used at dealerships to identify mechanical problems. Exum’s training has led to an entry-level job offer at Mike Savoie Chevrolet in Troy. The Eagle Scout plans on completing an auto technician apprenticeship there.

“The new high school lab makes learning easier,” he said. “It’s giving me an idea of what it’s really like working in the field.”

With public school districts facing significant funding challenges, Machesky said many eliminated career-tech classes, such as auto labs, and now rely on centralized training centers, such as the Oakland Technology Campuses, to provide such instruction. They do an excellent job but serve multiple districts, and there are only so many openings, he said.

“Our vision is to provide world-class learning opportunities to all of our students,” Machesky said. “Often times, the skilled trades get left out of the conversation. The district made the decision to partner with these companies and generate a win-win situation for everyone.”

Roncone said the new auto lab is just the first phase in updating the high school’s facilities to further enhance its STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) curriculum. Future plans are being developed to offer additional classes in automotive technology, as well as engineering, robotics and the skilled trades.

“We know there’s a shortage of talent in these fields here and across the country,” he said. “Our new auto lab is an example of our commitment to developing a curriculum that’s current and relevant.”