As a kid, Joe Conant brought car parts to show and tell rather than toys. He has worked on cars his whole life and believes the profession runs in his blood.
“You cannot teach somebody to work on cars. You can’t teach somebody how to swing a hammer and be an excellent carpenter. You can’t teach this. It has to be in your DNA,” Conant said.
Now Conant, owner of Conant Automotive, wants to guide students toward a profession that speaks to their DNA, he said. He began a high school apprenticeship program in 2007 to expose students to a career as auto technicians. Two students graduated, one still works for Conant today and two students are enrolled.
Starting their junior year, students attend classes at Stoughton High School in the morning and receive college credit by working at Conant’s shop in the afternoon. Once they enroll in a technical college, tuition is paid equally by Conant, the student and the Wisconsin Auto and Light Truck Dealers Association.
After graduation, the technician is required to work two years at Conant Automotive. Tuition costs Conant around $4,500 a student – a wise investment, he said – because it helps grow the profession and also provides skilled employees for his shop.
He said in the past 25 years, there has been a major push for students to get four-year degrees rather than go to the trades. In Dane County, Conant said there is a shortage of 5,000 mechanical technicians.
“(That push) kind of left us, that weren’t college bound, to just do whatever,” he said. “Some of us found our way and there’s a lot of that haven’t.”
With the shortage, Conant was having difficulty staffing his shop. In eight years, he went through 14 technicians. He had to get creative.
Greg Vale has been with Conant for 10 years and graduated from Stoughton High School in 2011. Vale encourages people interested in the trade to participate in the program. After a second house, new truck, and an associate’s degree, the only debt he carries is his mortgages.
“(Vale) is the ultimate success story,” Conant said.
The program also gives a new tool set, worth roughly $3,500, something Vale said helped him get started and made him a better technician. He sees himself in the auto industry for at least the next 10 years, he said.
Beyond working with the high school students, Conant also partners with the local Boy Scouts to expose kids to the trades profession early by earning an AutoMotive Merit Badge. Scouts check oil, change tires and identify certain components of a vehicle.
Some students are into it and some aren’t, but that is the point, Conant said, as the important thing is to expose kids to different professionals early on so they are able to make the decision themselves. He said It all goes back to doing something you are passionate about.
“If you truly love something, you’re going to excel at it,” Conant said. “It’s not going to be work, it’s going to be something you like to do.”