Jarod Brown loves the sunlight streaming into his new automotive technology classroom at North Mecklenburg High. But even with the natural light he insisted on when Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools designed the building, you can tell his students can’t wait to get away from their desks and into the shop.
The building, with two classrooms and a large new shop area, opened just in time for the start of school. Paid for with 2013 bond money, it allowed North Meck to add a second teacher and serve more students.
Brown, who is starting his fifth year teaching automotive classes at the Huntersville high school, quickly moved his vintage auto collection in. Students can work on a 1939 American Bantam roadster or a 1952 Chevy truck. There’s a ’65 Mustang being restored to its original tropical turquoise and a 2015 Prius that a teacher has entrusted to the students.
"They get their car fixed for half or less than half of what it would take anywhere else," Brown says of the faculty customers. And working on newer cars — especially an electric one — ensures his students can handle current technology along with the classics, he says.
The push to expand career-tech education — once known as vocational training — also links past to present. Brown, the son of teachers with advanced degrees, recalls feeling faintly embarrassed by having grease under his fingernails and opting for manual labor over college.
Now he's part of a trend.
"There’s kind of an awakening that’s happening in this country about the fact that not everybody’s going to college," Brown says. "For so many years blue-collar was actually looked down on. And when the lawyer has hired the plumber to fix his pipe and sees the guy charge him $150 an hour, that’s a wake-up call for some people."
Brown is a 61-year-old jack-of-all-trades turned teacher. He’s says he grew up in southern California playing in a neighbor’s junkyard and learned to love working on cars. In his teens he restored a 1940 Ford truck — then turned the bed into a tiny house, complete with stained-glass windows and a crystal doorknob.
"At 21 I finished and took a bulldog named Jackson and we hit the road traveling," Brown says. He landed in Charlotte in the 1980s and started his own auto restoration and repair shop.
Brown still drives that eye-catching house-truck to work sometimes. But the new 6,000-square-foot auto shop at North Meck isn’t just an eccentric’s personal playground. It’s county taxpayers’ latest investment in a shifting national philosophy.
This trend has been building for years, with college debt rising, the middle class shrinking and employers saying they can’t find skilled labor for high-paying jobs.
"It’s gone from a lot of trade opportunities for the students to everyone thinking everyone was college-bound to now going back to the trades and just providing options for students," says David Cassavecchia, who oversees career-technical education at North Meck.
After the recession loosened its grip, Mecklenburg voters approved $295 million in school bonds in 2013. That included almost $9 million for new career-tech buildings, including a culinary kitchen at Garinger, a carpentry shop at Independence and the North Meck auto shop.
CMS has a growing network of career-tech options, many of which offer students the chance to opt in from other school zones that don't have their preferred career track.
Mark Wells from the CMS career-tech program recruited Brown five years ago, after he retired from his auto business. A few years ago, Wells says, CMS had only four high school auto shops. Now there are seven — at North, South and East Mecklenburg, Myers Park, Providence, Harding and Independence — and three of those have two teachers.
"People are realizing that you can have a very profitable and fulfilling career without having a four-year education," Wells says. "So the skilled trades are really coming back stronger."
Brown’s skills include electrical work, plumbing and welding.
He’s passing that to his students. For instance, the new shop needs a tire rack. His students took measurements, drew up a design, then cut and welded the metal.
Brown says students spend a semester on safety techniques. But if it feels like there’s a whiff of danger — well, yeah. While a handful of girls are signed up, he’s basically working with teenage guys.
"You got fire and electricity and melted metal, you’ve got the interest of young men," he says. "It’s just scary enough, and yet you’re building something strong and permanent."
And that’s the heart of Brown’s philosophy: If you’re willing to use your hands, make mistakes and learn to to fix them, you can build something strong and permanent.
And what he’s really building, Brown says, is capable young adults with good job prospects. One is Kevin Guerra, a 17-year-old senior.
"He’s a great teacher," Guerra says. "You know how other classes are, like, just repeating off the book? But he actually shows you stuff on real cars. He has actual experience."
Brown helped Guerra get an after-school job at an auto-parts store. Guerra used $3,500 of his earnings to buy a 1992 Toyota pickup that had been donated to the North Meck auto shop. Brown helps Guerra customize it.
Steven Cevallos, a 17-year-old senior, says he's loved cars since he was a boy playing with toys. He loves taking automotive classes and dreams of becoming a mechanic or a race car driver.
Neither Brown or CMS are pushing trades instead of college. Schools with strong career-tech programs also offer Advanced Placement and free community college courses. And many skilled trades require secondary education. Guerra, for instance, plans to attend community college before eventually opening his own auto shop.
Zachary Jordan, another senior at North Meck, has signed up for an apprenticeship at the family-owned shop where Brown helped him get a summer job. After he graduates, he says, his employer will pay for college and provide him with a fully stocked tool box when he's done.
Brown says he thought about becoming a veterinarian and earned an associate degree right out of high school. But for him, the lure of the road and the challenge of building and fixing was stronger.
In addition to all the young people he's mentoring through school, Brown also taught his own son to work with his hands. That son went on to earn a master’s degree in renewable energy.