Auto shop teaches skills that pay the bills

Auto shop at Decatur High School isn't the class for students to attend if they want to goof off.

District officials and automotive technology teacher Luke Thompson take their auto shop seriously. So seriously, in fact, that they recently underwent a grueling process to get the program certified by the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation (NATEF).

NATEF certification indicates that a program teaches skills and standards developed and recommended by the automotive industry to prepare students for careers in the field.

"We aren't here for hobby classes," said Nancy Hawkins, director of career and technical education for the Federal Way School District.

The program is certified in six of eight possible categories including engine performance, brakes, engine repair, heating and air conditioning, electrical and electrical systems and suspension and steering. The program is not certified in automatic or manual transmission because those are more advanced categories usually reserved for colleges or technical schools, Thompson said.

Achieving certification in six categories is unusual for high schools, most of which get certified in four areas, Hawkins said.

"We went a little above and beyond there," she said. "We're extremely proud of the accomplishment."

Students who complete at least three years of training at Decatur will be eligible to receive NATEF certification and be qualified for entry-level positions in auto shops around the country. The industry is short on qualified technicians, said Merle Pfeifer, owner of Sparks Car Care in Federal Way and chairman for the Decatur NATEF certification advisory board.

An entry-level automotive technician can expect to earn about $30,000 a year, according to

Graduates of the auto shop at Decatur will be competitive for entry-level jobs at dealerships, private garages, oil-changing service stations and tire-changing service stations.

Fixing cars nowadays requires more skill and education than in past generations, Thompson said. Newer cars are run using intricate computer systems.

"Cars are more difficult to work on. Things have gone from being more mechanical to more electrical, and that transition is where a lot of people get cut off," he said.

Ninety students are currently enrolled in automotive technology classes at Decatur. First-year students will spend most of their time in the classroom researching, writing and practicing math. Second-, third- and fourth-year students complete projects on one of several vehicles the school owns. All students are required to complete essays throughout the course as well as assignments from the textbook "Practical Problems in Mathematics for Automotive Technicians."

Students will have the opportunity to participate in a Skills USA leadership club for students who are studying the trades. Thompson also plans to encourage students to enter a variety of competitions.

Many of the students in Thompson's classes have plans to attend college after completing high school. Eric Pham, Nick Spivy and Daniel Nieves, all juniors in the advanced automotive technology program, plan to attend community or technical colleges.

Nieves said he plans to study business at Highline Community College and use his combined education to open his own shop.

Auto shop classes are just as difficult as other classes at Decatur, said Nieves, who was working to rewire a Chrysler LHS in class last week.

"It's just as much as working in a classroom. It's just more hands-on," he said. "I like working with my hands to do stuff."

Eric Pham, who was working on diagnosing the cause of a pinging sound on a Mazda Protege, said he uses math and science in class.

For example, he was employing the scientific method to solve the pinging problem. He planned to develop hypothesis for the cause of the pinging, perform a series of tests to confirm or disprove the hypothesis, and discover the cause through the process of elimination.

Hawkins said the auto shop certification is the first of many national certifications the district will seek for its career and technical education programs.

Contact Margo Horner: or (253) 925-5565.

The automotive technology program at Decatur High School is seeking donations of used cars. For more information, call Luke Thompson at (253) 945-5260.

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