PHS auto programs prepare students for lucrative careers

CTE students grind and buff filled-in dents on a car panel.

A visit to Page High School’s auto collision shop is exactly as you’d expect. It’s loud. It’s busy. It’s industrious. On a typical day, class begins with auto collision teacher Sylvester “Sly” Begay instructing his students in the classroom, but the majority of the class happens in the shop, where the students apply what they’ve just been taught.

“This is the kind of thing where the kids are only going to learn it by doing it,” Begay said.

The shop smells of the ozone of the arc welder, and hot steel being bent and banged into place. In one section of the shop, a student welds a reinforcement bar to a trailer. In another section, students are applying filler putty to a dent that’s too sharp to be pulled out. In another part of the shop, students weld pins to dents in a car hood. Later, the students use the pins with a slide hammer to pull out the dent.

Page High School’s collision shop houses several cars or partial of cars, all of which have been donated to the program by members of the Page community.

“These donations are crucial to the program,” Begay said. “They allow our students to have real, hands-on experience in fixing a vehicle.”

In Collision I, students are taught the different parts of the vehicle, how to analyze vehicular damage, the proper use of the tools, metal finishing and body filling, metal welding and cutting and plastics repair. In Collision II, students learn safety precautions when painting and refinishing, how to properly prep a surface for painting, spray gun operation, paint mixing and matching, and fine detail work. In Collision III, students learn cost estimation, shop management and selling skills.  

Begay teaches auto collision and Chris Green teaches auto tech at Page High School.

High-school-level auto tech and auto collision classes are very rare. Only two high schools in Utah have them, and Page is the only high school in northern Arizona that has an auto collision program. A couple others have auto tech programs.

Chuck Sharp, Page High School’s CTE director, said there are a couple main reasons these classes aren’t often taught at the high school level. First, it’s very expensive for a high school to start and maintain industry-standard auto tech and auto collision programs.

Sharp estimates the high school’s auto tech shop has around $750,000 of equipment, with another $500,000 of equipment in its auto collision shop. Second, it’s hard to find teachers in those fields because they can make a lot of money working in the trades.

“We’re very fortunate to have Sly and Chris,” Sharp said. “Experienced techs can make so much money in the trades that it’s hard to lure them into teaching.”

This is Begay’s first year teaching. He has been working as a collision tech since 2011. He came in to register his daughter for high school last year and asked who the collision teacher was, and was told that the high school didn’t have one. The idea of being a school teacher has always appealed to Begay. He gave it a little thought and applied to be the teacher. 

Halfway through his first year, he’s loving it and happy he made the decision.

Sharp is thrilled to have Begay as a teacher.

“It’s great having a teacher with real life experience,” Sharp said. “He knows what the students will need to be ready for the technical colleges and he gets them ready for that. And he knows what it’s like working in shops in the real world, and he passes that knowledge and expertise on to his kids.”

It’s a great time to have auto tech and collision programs. Certified technicians in those fields are in high demand and they’re highly-paid. 

“Right now, auto tech, collision tech, welding, construction, electricians and all the labor trades are in high demand,” Sharp said. “In all the trades, worker pay is going up because of high demand. Any student who goes … to one of those fields know they are going to have a job waiting for them when they graduate, and their salaries will increase as they progress through their career.”

Dixie Technical College in St. George, Utah, trains its students in several different industrial trades, including automotive, computer, healthcare and construction fields.

Andy Morgan, a recruiter for Dixie Tech, said dealerships and automotive repair shops are practically knocking down his door searching for qualified techs to fill position in their shops.

“The demand for auto and collision technicians has always been in great demand,” Morgan said, “but since the labor shortage that hit a year before COVID, the demand is even higher. The shops are all competing for labor and because of that high demand, we have 100% job placement for our students.”

A student entering Dixie Tech’s auto collision or auto tech programs will complete 1,000 hours of training, which is done in a year, to get their necessary I-CAR certifications. The cost for the year-long program is just over $5,000. They graduate as an entry-level technician and start making $15 to $18 an hour.

“After graduating from a technical college, they’re still three to five years from getting their journeyman status,” Morgan said. “But once they’ve gained that experience and move from an hourly rate to flat rate, they start making really good money. It’s common for a 25-year-old auto techs and collision techs to be making $65 to $80 thousand a year.”

At a time when it’s common for many college graduates to begin their careers saddled with student loans ranging from $40,000 to $120,000, a lot of high school students are taking a second look at the trades. 

Because of the high demand for collision techs and auto techs, Dixie Tech and Page High School are in the process of creating an open articulation agreement, which will streamline the process for getting Page High School students into Dixie’s Tech’s programs.

Representatives from Dixie Tech visited Page High School’s auto collision and auto tech facilities last December.

Chuck Sharp was more than happy to help facilitate the mutually beneficial relationship.

“In addition to showing them our facilities, we also supplied them with our standards, which they reviewed to make sure it meets what they’re teaching in their program,” Sharp said.

Morgan said he and the others from Dixie Tech were impressed by what they saw during their visit, and they’re equally impressed by the students Page High School is sending them.

“Sylvester is running a great program there,” Morgan said. “I want his students to come to us when he’s done with them.”

One of those students is Levi Telshaw, who graduated from Page High School in 2018. He took auto tech and auto collision classes at Page High School and then did a year with Dixie Tech to complete his education and get the necessary certifications. He graduated with no student debt and now, four years into his career, has moved beyond entry-level wages and is making over $65,000 year.

“I’ve always had a fascination with automobiles, how they work and how to repair them,” he said.

Telshaw said his interest in automobiles took a giant leap forward during high school when he began working on cars in his auto tech and auto collision classes.

“Any student who goes to these and apply themselves will have employment when they’re finished,” Sharp said, “and it’s a field with lots of opportunities for career advancement, and you can work anywhere in the U.S.”

Page High School’s auto tech and auto collision programs also work closely with Universal Technical Institute, WYOTech and Lincoln Tech.

Page High School currently has 112 students in its auto tech classes and 68 in the auto collision classes.

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