Auto shop geared to learning

At South Carroll, students get jump-start on becoming mechanics with hands-on training


Sparks rained down from a welding torch in Tim Brathuhn's gloved hands as he attempted to remove an exhaust pipe from an Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera.

The sparks landed on the floor of the South Carroll automotive technology auto shop, where chattering teams of uniformed workers, their names sewn onto their multicolored jerseys, were servicing cars.

The workers are 18 high school juniors from Century and South Carroll high schools, and their workshop is part of the South Carroll Career and Technology Center. The clientele consists largely of South Carroll High School's staff and faculty.

The shop "attracts quite a bit of business," said Chris Reeb, the school's automotive instructor. "I have to keep it to a minimum. Our entire operation ... is to train these students. If [we] take on too much at one time, then the shop gets packed and I can't properly teach. We get swamped with work."

One of the primary reasons for the steady business is the price. Labor is cheap: Customers pay only 15 percent over cost for parts, plus a 5 percent fee for taxes. In exchange for keeping the bottom line low, the students receive valuable experience as automotive mechanics.

The instruction that the students receive is in four primary areas: brakes, power steering and suspension, engine performance, and electrical and electronics.

The students start their day in academic classes for the first hour and a half. Second period is in Reeb's classroom, where they learn the basics and the principles of operation. Apart from a break for lunch, the remaining hours are spent in the workshop.

"We test these students for the Automotive Service Excellence organization," said Reeb, referring to the group that certifies that the program adheres to industry standards.

"These students get to do job shadowing ... and later on get mentored at the dealerships and independent shops that operate in the program. During the summertime, they work full time at that dealership or independent shop, and then they continue their mentorship when they start their senior year."

Aside from taking notes and performing maintenance on customers' vehicles, the students also can tinker with their own cars or trucks.

On a sunny afternoon last week, the technology crew focused on six cars in the garage, two of which belonged to the students. Outside, South Carroll junior D.J. Hawkins, 17, of Taylorsville, worked on aligning the front end of his truck.

"I get this in here a couple times a week and mess around with it," he said. Hawkins also takes the knowledge he learns at school and applies it at home, where he installed neon lights on his truck's underbody.

In the hustle and bustle of a shop filled with chemicals and sharp metal, safety is paramount. Students who get caught without protective eye gear face discipline.

"I'm pretty adamant about them having their safety glasses on," Reeb said. "There are too many things around that can fly off and get in their eyes."

George Phillips, South Carroll High principal, brings in his vehicles for the students to service. On this particular day, his Ford Taurus is getting an oil change and a safety inspection.

"I know they need cars to work on, and I know they do a thorough job," he said. "When they know they're serving a customer, it makes for more intense learning. They know they're going to have to get it right or else they'll have an angry customer on their hands."

Learning how to get it right has earned two students scholarships and prizes this school year.

At a competition in February at a Glen Burnie vehicle distributor, Cody Henn - a 17-year-old Liberty High senior who works as a student aide for Reeb's class - and Kyle Mantua, 18, of South Carroll ranked third at diagnosing and repairing automobiles. They each won $3,500 in scholarships, as well as free tools and other prizes.

Henn said he doesn't know yet what he will do with the scholarship, but he is looking into the automotive program at the Community College of Baltimore County's Catonsville campus.

The Catonsville campus is not the only option for his students after they graduate, Reeb said. Other students attend trade school or seek employment.

Getting a job seems to be a goal for the majority of students in the technology program.

J.D. Jordan, a 17-year-old South Carroll junior, said he comes from a family of mechanics. And he hopes to be next in line.

"Hopefully, [I can] get my own shop open" one day, he said. In the meantime, maybe he'll "go work at a dealership, make some money and get a good living."

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