Collision Repair Teacher Sets Students Up for Career Success

Collision Repair Teacher Sets Students Up for Career Success

Collision repair instructor Lonnie Higey at Lorain County Joint Vocational School in Oberlin, OH, has a program focused on career employment and hands-on engagement while making things fun.

By achieving all three goals since taking the job seven years ago, Higey is proud of the fact this two-year high school program with sophomores shadowing is flourishing even during uncertain times.

After many years as a painter, estimator and manager in the collision repair industry at the dealership level, Higey decided to pursue a second career as the new collision instructor at Lorain County JVS.

“I started with 13 students, with 12 boys and one girl in my first class,” he said. “Then the State of Ohio asked us if we would like to participate in the Paint-A-Plow, which is a community outreach program in which students are invited to paint an Ohio Department of Transportation snow plow blade with original artwork to represent their individual school.”

The snow plows were just the beginning, Higey said.

“I took a chance and had them drop off four plows for us to paint," he said. "I quickly realized that prepping these plows would teach the students all the basics in body work, which also opened up a new world in the program.”

After success with the Paint-A-Plow experience, Higey began looking around to take on all kinds of interesting projects.

“We’ve painted RVs, horse cart wagons, even mixers for local bakeries,” he said. “We painted a Chevy Corvette for the sheriff’s department and a few for a local Corvette club. We also completely restored a van for the Lorain County Salvation Army and another one for the local juvenile court system.

"I believe in having students do service work in my classes because giving back is so important and it contributes to the growth of the program.”

Throughout the years, the collision repair program at Lorain County JVS has grown considerably with more and more young women signing on for Higey’s classes.

“This year’s junior class has 14 girls and 11 boys, which gives us a total of 50-plus sophomores, juniors and seniors," Higey said. "Many of the girls go on to either independent body shops, like Ruby Tanner at Cleveland Power and Spitzer Chrysler Dodge Ram, Savannah Moore at Flatline Collision, and even Julie Taylor and Hannah Deichler at Riddell Sports in Elyria, OH, reconditioning helmets for sports teams.”

By leveraging more than 30 years in the business, Higey is adept at creating great opportunities for his students.

“Riddell has been a major employer of our students, and now we have several graduates working there full-time, as well as two seniors and seven juniors, six of which are girls," he said. "It seems that this program is getting bigger and bigger every year, because our students can see a future where they have many avenues for success.

"It’s great to see when my students and graduates can apply the talents they have learned here. One of my graduates told me that she was making more money than her father by working at Riddell.”

Fun has always been an integral part of Higey’s classes.

“We have a grill and we make pancakes,” he said. “I believe in having fun and enabling my kids to be creative in their thinking about collision repair and then apply it to almost anything---cars, trucks, boats, snow plows and golf carts. I’ve learned over the years that if students can have some fun, the program will grow by leaps and bounds.”

Juniors and seniors at Lorain County JVS are also enrolled in I-CAR’s professional development program to complete courses in painting and refinishing and non-structural technician. Upon completion, they have a Pro Level One certification.

Higey’s students can also study 3M Collision Academy and S/P2 safety courses, or learn CCC Pathways Estimating if they desire.

In addition, juniors and seniors also have the opportunity to compete in SkillsUSA, Higey said.

“We have made it to the state competition many times," he said. "This is always a fun time and a great trip, giving this opportunity to see how many students are there competing in all different industries and trades.”

Teaching his students is his No. 1 priority, but helping to place them in good jobs is a close second, Higey said.

“I tell my students' parents that I am not a teacher, I’m a job trainer. If they can get their kid out of their basement and into one of my classes, they have a fair chance to find a skill that they can use the rest of their lives."

If you want to stay in his classes, you play by Higey’s rules.

“I don’t have a lot of rules, so it shouldn’t be that difficult. My goal is to take my students out of a kid’s world and into the adult world. We are a school of choice, so these people should be able to motivate themselves, but I am willing to help.”

When it comes to retirement, the concept couldn’t be further from his mind, Higey said.

“As long as I can keep up with these teenagers, I see my see teaching into my 70s. The technology is changing rapidly, but most of the processes are still the same in many ways," he said. "If we can set these young people up for successful lives and careers, that is something I want to do as long as I can.”

Ed Attanasio

Ed Attanasio is an automotive journalist and Autobody News columnist based in San Francisco.

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