Shop Talk: Narrow Your Career Focus
Irecently returned from the Engine Masters Challenge, held this year in a new location at Wiseco Pistons’ headquarters in
Mentor, Ohio. It was a sentimental trip for me, because I grew up in Cleveland about 25 miles away. I worked for a while in Mentor at Classic Chevrolet in the body shop, and that’s the singular job in my past I can point to that led me to where I am now.
At the time, I was about 25 years old and floundering in life. I had been in and out of college and couldn’t figure out what to do for a living. I had worked a variety of different jobs, ranging from janitor to parts-store counter person. I wasn’t happy. I knew I wanted to do something with cars but hadn’t found the right fit. On a whim, I drove to Classic Chevrolet and asked what positions were available. Sure, there were plenty of dealerships closer to where we lived, but my parents had recently purchased a Tahoe there and were really very pleased with the experience. Based on that, I figured it would be a good place to work. I ended up getting hired as a detailer in the body shop. I liked that job quite a bit, but after several months, I wanted more. I spoke with the manager and was eventually allowed to work as porter, moving cars in and out of the various stations in the shop. That job morphed into a sort of apprenticeship because, during the course of the day, I’d routinely ask the body men and painters if they needed help with their work. Looking back, one might say that it was a selfish gesture for a flat-rate technician to accept free help, but the guys all seemed genuinely happy to share their knowledge and skills with me, and they were all really good at their jobs. I learned a lot. Soon, I was mixing paint, masking cars, sanding body filler and primer, and reassembling cars after paint. I loved it, but I soon realized I didn’t want to do it for a living.
That realization came to me one bitterly cold winter day. I had just pulled a tired and neglected Chevy van onto the frame machine for one of the collision guys. As I passed through the shop a few minutes later, I stopped dead in my tracks at the sight of him completely covered with slush and rust from working on his back under the van. He looked utterly miserable.
That moment was the turning point for me. I knew I wanted to work with cars, but I wanted to build cars, not to do maintenance work or collision repair in a high-volume, flat-rate shop. I left the dealership a few months after that. For a short time, I inquired at some local custom and restoration shops, but nothing came of it. I felt time was running out and decided to go back to college. I unwittingly stumbled into photography, something I hadn’t seriously considered before, and got accepted into the photojournalism program at Ohio University. Throughout my time there, I worked cars into as many assignments as I could. Shortly after graduation, I was offered a photography internship at Motor Trend, and the rest, as they say, is history.
I stopped by Classic Chevrolet on the Saturday after the Engine Masters Challenge was over. The shop was closed, but a few employees were cleaning up, and they didn’t seem particularly interested to learn that I worked there 20 years ago. It’s unlikely that anyone I worked with then is still there, but I was hoping to talk with a manager just to say thanks and to encourage him to foster a learning environment with the kids who work there now. No, I never became an autobody technician, and to those guys I worked with at the time, I am probably one of an endless string of people passing through their lives in the shop. However, the flexibility the manager showed by letting me work that amorphous porter/apprentice job was life-altering.
Not only did I learn practical skills, I was motivated to forge and shape those skills with my interests and desires, sending me on the path that led directly here.
I believe much of our youth is spent figuring out what you don’t want to do in life. Through process of elimination, we eventually narrow down into a career that we do find fulfilling. In an ironic twist of fate, Classic is currently hiring detailers. I encourage any 20-somethings in northeast Ohio who like cars to apply. If you get the job, who knows how it will inspire you.