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Maxwell High School of Technology students Carlos Merino, left and Bryant Amaya work with a spray gun in an auto collision class on Thursday. The school received a $2,000 donation from the Georgia Collision Industry Association, and the money will be used in part to buy new spray guns.
For the second straight year, the Georgia Collision Industry Association donated $2,000 to the school in hopes of supporting an industry that is starving for quality young employees. The average age of a technician is 48-years-old, according to members of the GCIA who visited Maxwell.
“These cars aren’t going to get any easier to repair, so we’ve got to have qualified people to repair them, in the proper manner,” said Howard Batchelor, executive director and treasurer of the GCIA. “We want to make sure the up-and-coming next repairers have the skills necessary to repair cars that are damaged.”
Added GCIA Secretary Gregg Goff, “When you think about it, it’s the second biggest investment people make.”
The Maxwell program counts about 40 students, and instructors Butch Luther and Sam Melaragno said the money would be used to buy supplies, likely spray guns that cost about $800 each and last four years.
“As good as Gwinnett County Schools are about handling the recession, there still wasn’t enough money to operate at the level we want to operate on,” Luther said. “We understand that. You’ve got all the programs in the county to consider, and I think the county did a great job. But if these people hadn’t come along to help us, we would have been sitting practicing in thin air for half the time. Materials just cost that much in this business.”
The cost often hits home with students, Luther said, when they set out to work on side jobs outside of school, and realize that a gallon of paint can cost $500.
“It’s only going to help us have better equipment, so we can learn the correct way,” senior Joel Leyva said. “But we understand we have to take care of the equipment we do get, so it will last longer.”
Leyva and fellow senior Bryant Amaya plan to attend Lincoln Technical Institute in Nashville, Tenn., and then one day work for a dealership or open their own body shop.
“We wanted to go to college so we can learn everything right,” Leyva said. “We can learn it from people, but it might not be to other people’s standards.”
Technology changes have caused the industry to become increasingly specialized, especially in terms of metal cross contamination. Some vehicles cannot be repaired in the same areas as others.
Cuts related to the recession have also dropped the number of auto collision repair programs across the state from 15 to about four or five. The main reason was lack of funding during lean budget years, and a lack of understanding of the importance of the programs, GCIA members said.
Parents often have a misconception about the facilities where body shops operate, and the career path for auto collision professionals.
“They think of a body shop of being that old, dark, dirty, nasty place, and it’s not,” GCIA member Bobby Coombs said. “It’s clean and nice, the environment is taken care of, health and safety have come so far.”
Melaragno said the program is designed to give students a fundamental foundation to build from.
“Starting off on the right foot,” he said. “Not doing it in their backyard and figuring it out for themselves, or watching it on the Internet. Getting them on the right track is more important than anything … and getting them on the right industry path, that’s the key. Entry-level skills they can actually use when they leave.”
Coombs added that outreach to programs like Maxwell has to continue to educate parents and students about the career path for auto collision professionals, and the salary range is often higher than many realize.
Luther added that the program strives to keep up with industry standards instead of simply teaching basic skills.
Put simply, Coombs said people’s lives and their family are affected by how someone repairs their vehicle.
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