Good under the hood



Nobody minded that two Federal Way teenagers spent a recent school day working on a car.

In fact, the duo came within a sparkplug of representing Washington in a national automotive mechanics competition.

Kennith Samson and Scott Hankemeier, both 18-year-old seniors at Federal Way High School, finished second in the Washington finals of the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills contest. Their auto shop teacher, James McLain, said they would have won and earned the trip to the national finals June 29 at Ford’s world headquarters in Dearborn, Mich. if not for “just one catch.”

Like the other two-person teams of competitors, Samson and Hankemeier were asked to diagnose and repair a broken-down Ford Crown Victoria. Samson noticed a sparkplug needed adjusting, which he did. But judges had said they wanted sparkplugs to be replaced, not adjusted. As a result, the state title went to a tandem from North Thurston High School in Lacey.

“My guys should have won hands-down. But they have nothing to be ashamed of. They were terrific,” McLain said.

They were even offered jobs by the owner of some Issaquah-area auto repair shops who was among the contest’s spectators. “He was that impressed by them,” McLain related.

To qualify for the state finals May 11 at Renton Technical College, contestants had to finish in the top 10 statewide in a written test. Samson and Hankemeier were 10th in that part of the judging before going from the back of the pack and nearly winning it all. Their prize was $10,000 apiece in scholarships, which they plan to use at Renton Tech.

Other competitors from Spokane, Vancouver (two teams), Battle Ground, Moses Lake, Richland, Kitsap County and Sumner vied in Washington’s portion of the annual competition that pinpoints some of the most talented –– and in-demand –– young auto technicians in the United States. John Milbrath, vice president of AAA Automotive Services, the contest’s sponsor along with Ford, cited an increasing need nationally for more trained technicians. Even with more than 840,000 technicians working, another 60,000 are needed. The shortage is expected to reach 100,000 next year, say auto service industry experts.

“It’s a good and honorable profession to go into,” said McLain, who wishes students pursuing vocational careers such as auto mechanics universally got the same attention and encouragement as those choosing strictly academic paths.

“Just because someone chooses to do something with their hands doesn’t mean it’s not important or valuable,” said McLain, who has taught aspiring mechanics since 1984 here and in Sumner.

Ones who make it a career can be well-rewarded monetarily. Certified, entry-level technicians are paid as much as $35,000 a year, and master technicians can earn up to $100,000 in some parts of the country, according to AAA.

The salary potential is explained by the skills required to deal with the sophistication of today’s vehicles, laden with high-tech gadgetry and electronics. McLain said even the least expensive automobiles have “more computer technology than it took to land the first man on the moon.”

Hankemeier plans to make automotive work his livelihood. He already has a part-time job building custom engine headers for Clear Image Automotive in Auburn.

“I’ve always been interested in how things work,” he said. “When I was a little kid, I’d tear my toys apart. Then I started learning how to put them back together. After that, I worked on lawn mowers and eventually cars.”

The latter include the 1971 Chevrolet pickup truck he bought from his uncle and rebuilt.

Samson makes some of his own parts when repairing his Jeep Cherokee, and that’s why he wants to some day design custom cars. “I like digging around in old sheet metal,” he said.

After helping his grandfather and a neighbor work on their vehicles, Samson “counted down the days” until he could sign up for auto shop in high school. Because he’s dyslexic, “I’ve always had more fun” in school doing mechanical things than in classes such as English, he explained. And that helped lead him to a new job at Scarff Ford in Auburn.

Editor Pat Jenkins: 925-5565,

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