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Ole Brook’s auto class certified — Automotive service and repair program receives NATEF workforce-ready accreditation

The hydraulic motor whined as it pushed the 3,000-pound car into the air, the steel safety latches knocking loudly into place every few inches to prevent the Volvo from crashing back down on the painted gray concrete.

When the wagon’s wheels were eye-level, Brookhaven High School junior Tamarcus Mackabee gave the left front tire a good shake. It rattled and bobbled in every direction, so he ducked underneath the front end and gave the tie rod assembly a good shake. It was tight. So was the ball joint.

That left just one thing. The wheel bearing was bad — really bad. There wasn’t enough time to pull it and replace it by the end of the class, so Mackabee lowered the Volvo back to the floor. Next time the class meets, he’ll spend an hour with a wad of bearing grease in one hand, thick as peanut butter, dragging a new bearing across his palm to pack the awful grease into every opening.

But Mackabee, 17, doesn’t mind getting dirty. He looks forward to it.

“I like the shop,” he said. “This is reality. We can learn about what we’re doing on the computers, but then we come out here in the shop and put our hands on.”

Mackabee is one of five students enrolled in automotive service and repair at the Brookhaven Technical Center this semester, learning the basics of car care by using professional tools to experiment on donated wrecks and repair teachers’ cars. All of them have given at least some thought to pursuing auto mechanics as a career, and now that the program has earned accreditation from the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation, they’ll have an advantage entering the workforce if they do.

“Training quality technicians — that’s what we’re working toward,” said automotive instructor Theron Edwards.

NATEF certification is granted to automotive programs meeting the organization’s standards for tools, equipment, attendance, resources and instructor qualifications, and it allows graduating students aiming for a career in auto mechanics to count their high school course toward the two-year technical training required to be certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence.

“Directly out of high school, this puts them at the next level, gives them a competitive advantage,” Edwards said.

Edwards said NATEF certification is a big deal for the program, as it comes with increased resources, like donated tools and equipment, and the backing of automotive businesses eager to push more qualified mechanics into the workforce. Brookhaven’s several car dealerships are already big supporters of the program — the technical center has an apprenticeship program with Copiah-Lincoln Community College, and the dealerships use it tp buy extra manpower.

Those dealerships are where Edwards has made his living since coming through Pat Sullivan’s automotive class at Ole Brook and graduating in 1995. He did two years in Co-Lin’s automotive program before getting on with Honda of Brookhaven (now Mike Whatley Honda). He was a manager at Toyota for eight years before taking the teaching gig at the technical center.

Now, he’s teaching students how to change oil, diagnose electronics, mount and balance tires, align front ends, replace brakes and other forms of basic maintenance.

“The main thing I teach them is, first, to be responsible,” Edwards said. “That’s what leads to being a good technician. And to have passion for what you do. You can make a good, honest living for yourself and your family doing this.”

Making a good, honest living is why Edwards’ program exists in the first place.

“Not everyone is going to go to a four-year college, so what we do is try to prepare them for a skill in high demand, get them acclimate to those skills and move them on to a junior college where they can enhance those skills, or even step into the workforce straight from here,” said Trevor Brister, principal of the technical center. “Getting students into the workforce — that’s pretty much our ultimate goal.”

It almost didn’t happen. Brister said the school’s automotive program was dormant for years, all its nice equipment packed away in storage.

“I called the state department and told them they could come take all this equipment — I’m tired of counting it every year,” he said. “But Mr. Edwards was a product of the program. A friend of mine said he was looking to get into education, so I gave him a call, got him in here and he’s been loving it. We’re fortunate, because a lot of programs across the state are shutting down because they can’t find a qualified instructor.”

Edwards may be training tomorrow’s qualified instructors.

At his commands — “suit up” and “safety glasses on” — his handful of students spread around the shop and get into their projects. Junior D.J. Durr, 17, and junior Graham Kergosien, 18, spent Thursday trying to locate a voltage problem with a computerized sensor.

“I got into this class just to prepare for life,” Durr said. “If you know your way around the car, you won’t have to pay someone else to take care of you.”

Kergosien is a doctor’s son, but he plans on enrolling in Co-Lin’s automotive program.

“I can’t be a doctor, now. That’s too much schooling for me,” he said. “I like customizing cars, working on four-wheelers. I just started by putting blue (LED) lights in the dashboard of my truck, and now I’m into it.”

Thalial Lopez, a 16-year-old junior, wants to be a pediatrician — or a mechanic, maybe. She’s not shy about the work.

“Most girls think this is for boys — they don’t want to get dirty. But I grew up in a house full of boys,” she said. “This makes me feel good. To just come in here and get your hands on the work.”

Kemar Dixon, a 17-year-old junior, said he’s the family mechanic. He changes the oil in his grandmother’s car and installed new headlights. He’s thinking about a career in diesel mechanics.

“Heavy machinery. I like being around stuff like that,” he said. “It just feels natural.”