Thirty years ago, auto shop was as much a part of California high schools as frog dissection, typing classes and Friday night football.
But due to budget cuts, teacher shortages and a push for more academic course offerings, fewer than half those auto shops remain in California — even though they have the potential to complement hands-on math and science curriculum, education experts say.
Vocational education classes, such as auto shop, can provide training and career options for students less likely to go to college, but also can be useful for students who are on academic tracks, educators said. They provide students with practical skills and can be a helpful way to teach science, technology engineering and math, or STEM.
“Auto shop these days is not the auto shop of the past. Now it’s about engineering, math, computers, physics, problem solving … It really is part of STEM, as it should be,” said Ruben Parra, president of the California Automotive Teachers and an automotive teacher at Skyline College in San Bruno. “And there’s such a need for it. Look out the window — you see more vehicles on the road today, not less. We need the next generation to understand how those vehicles work.”
Auto shop can fit in well with California’s new K-12 science standards, called Next Generation Science Standards, which emphasize classroom projects that allow students to observe how abstract scientific concepts apply to real-world scenarios, Parra said.
Auto shops were once part of schools’ vocational education offerings, along with wood shop, home economics, metal shop and other career training courses, but began declining about 30 years ago, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. About a decade ago, some schools began introducing career-focused courses, through Linked Learning or other programs, but the classes are more tailored to careers in health care, design or engineering, rather than auto mechanics, manufacturing or construction.
In California, the number of auto shop classes have remained mostly steady over the past five years, according to the California Department of Education. In 2016-17, 551 schools offered automotive classes — up from 548 in 2012-12 — but enrollment in those classes dropped from 37,373 to 35,343.
A few districts in California have re-opened or expanded their existing programs, Parra said. Schools in San Diego, Long Beach and Ukiah, among others, have recently invested in their automotive programs, he said. At least one community college, Rio Hondo College in Whittier, offers a bachelor’s of science degree in automotive technology. The California Department of Education’s career and technical education division also offers auto shop guidance and curriculum for schools.
One challenge for districts wanting to expand auto shop programs is cost. Modern auto shops require computers, scanners and software, because most new cars are computerized. That equipment can cost thousands of dollars and must be upgraded every few years, Parra said.
In addition, credentialed auto shop teachers are scarce, he said. Most people with expertise in auto repair choose to become mechanics or engineers, where they can earn more money.
One of the state’s most established programs is the Eden Area Regional Occupational Program, which offers 135 vocational classes for high school students and adults in the East Bay Area. About 100 students are enrolled in auto repair and auto painting classes, learning how to take apart engines, install and rotate tires, fix brakes and transmissions and diagnose engine malfunctions based on a customer’s description of loud clankings or funny smells.
Students come from high schools from throughout the area, taking busses across town for three hours a day of engine tinkering in two cavernous auto shops in Hayward. Both shops are filled with old Fords and Chevys with the hoods up, new Hondas and Subarus on hoists and engine blocks on pedestals for students to learn about cylinders, cooling and lubricating systems and the crankcase.
After graduation, many of the students continue studying automotive mechanics at nearby community colleges or attend private automotive schools, and some go to work as apprentices in local auto shops, dealerships or vehicle fleets.
The career outlook for auto mechanics is good, according to the California Employment Development Department. The auto repair job market is expected to grow by about 8.5 percent, or 5,900 jobs, by 2024, according to the agency. Experienced auto mechanics can earn at least $60,000 annually.
Dafne Ochoa, a senior at Mt. Eden High School in Hayward and one of the few girls enrolled in the Eden program, doesn’t want to be an auto mechanic. She wants to be an architect, but thought auto repair would be a useful skill.
“I want to learn how to do things for myself, so I don’t have to rely on men,” she said last week during a break in her auto class. “I feel like I’m learning a lot about engineering, which will help with architecture later on. I like puzzles — figuring out problems and putting things together, and this is good training for that.”
Some students said that tinkering with cars is a family hobby. Joshua Paris, a senior at Royal Sunset High in San Lorenzo, said his grandfather and all his uncles are mechanics, and someday he hopes to open his own auto repair shop.
“I like learning how engines work,” he said. “How did the first engine get put together? How did they figure that out? I’m interested in that part of it. And I also like fast cars. I think we all like fast cars.”
Teacher Jose Sanchez, who’s taught auto repair for 21 years and worked as a mechanic at dealerships before that, said all students could benefit from auto shop, even if they don’t want to pursue it as a career.
Learning how engines work is a perfect hands-on way to teach math and science, he said. Students learn physics and chemistry by studying aerodynamics, temperature differentials, lift and drag forces, instability, air and fuel ratios, combustion, carbon monoxide and other topics. His classes also cover the basics of business, such as billing and marketing.
“But it really comes down to safety,” he said. “What do you do if you’re driving down the road, and all your lights go off suddenly? Or you’re out of cell phone range and you get a flat tire? What’s required to maintain your vehicle? These are things everyone should know.”
John Chocolak, who taught high school auto shop for 40 years and now works for the Small Manufacturers Institute, which promotes workforce training, said that students need to have non-college options after graduation.
“Students need to be able to make informed decisions about what they want to do with their lives, and by only offering college prep classes schools are making that decision for them,” he said. “Not all students want to go to college, and we’re denying them the chance to learn about other opportunities. … Auto shop, wood shop, metal shop — these can lead to great careers.”