James Song has skills — as he demonstrated at the North Carolina State SkillsUSA competition where he won first place in post-secondary automotive refinishing technology.
“I was definitely nervous when I walked in, but I’d practiced three or four times each week for a month, plus I was fortunate enough to be prepped by Robbie Lynch, an instructor who has gone to states with previous students,” says Song, a student at Fayetteville Technical Community College (FTCC). “After about 30 minutes, everything fell into place. It felt like I was back in class, practicing. I started feeling really confident then; I knew I could do this.”
Even the couple of curveballs thrown his way didn’t shake Song for long. “I was unfamiliar with some of the alternate techniques they offered, but instead of allowing myself to feel pressured to do something different, I just did as I was taught, and the product came out really great.”
Although he felt pretty confident, Song found the win to be “unexpected. I didn’t expect to win. I wanted to compete so I could compare myself to others to gauge how advanced I am in the program and see how I compare to the rest of the industry. My friends thought I’d place and were surprised when I took first place. Although my family had no idea what was actually going on, they ‘knew’ I’d win because of my confidence.”
Doug Irish, collision instructor at FTCC, was less surprised by his student’s success. “James is a very good student. He’s focused and conscientious, and he’s a little more mature than most other students since he has an associate’s degree in another field and a couple years’ college experience behind him already.
“Since James joined the class, he picks up the concepts very quickly and excels at transferring classroom knowledge into skillset development on the floor. When he misses a lab, he comes in after hours to practice and hone his skills. FTCC and I were very excited that James won the North Carolina State SkillsUSA.”
Service vs. Collision
Prior to enrollment in the collision technology program at FTCC, Song was working on the maintenance side, and as he considered the increasing electrification of vehicles and how that would impact the future viability of his career path, he decided that collision might be a better route to travel. Currently an apprentice at Hendrick Collision in Fayetteville, Song plans to pursue a career in the collision repair industry after graduation.
“I’m specifically interested in painting; it’s a different form of artwork,” he says. “I’ve heard that it’s a tough segment and you need to be good to stand out in such a minute group, but I’m up for the challenge. I enjoy demonstrating what I can do with paint, but I definitely enjoy bodywork, too. I just want to work on cars in general.”
His studies at FTCC have prepared Song for his future career by providing “a lot of hands-on experience. The instructors are there to answer questions and provide examples of how to improve your skills, and I took all their advice in and used that knowledge to compete.”
According to Irish, one of the biggest challenges he faces as a collision instructor is in recruitment and finding the right students, but once he attracts them to the course, he works hard to train the next generation of technicians. Of course, the expense of the class presents additional challenges.
“Collision has one of the highest expense ratios when it comes to training and consumable materials,” Irish says. “Fortunately, the Collision Repair Education Foundation (CREF) helps us offset those costs through grants, tool donations and donated consumables. They essentially equipped us to restart the collision program in 2015 with nearly $1 million in tools, materials and products, all donated through the industry.
“CREF put a lot of effort into helping our program become more effective at teaching the skills that industry employers actually need from entry-level technicians. We teach them everything they’ll see in today’s collision shops, including working on live vehicles so they attain real-world experience. CREF has also helped us connect students with employers around the country when the graduate decides they don’t want to stay local; 100% of our graduates who want to join this field have been able to land a collision job.”
Song believes that many young people have started gravitating to more hands-on trades and wishes that he’d had the option to study collision when he was in high school.
Next up? Song is in Atlanta competing this week looking to be on SkillsUSA Nationals awards stage on June 24th.
“It’s a much bigger stage and more difficult competition, but I’m looking forward to James’ ventures in Atlanta and wish him the best,” says Irish.
“I’m extremely excited for Nationals,” Song says. “I just wanted to see where I’m at — I didn’t expect to make it this far. I’m going in with the same mentality as before. I hope I place, but I really just want to put my name out there. Whether I win or not, I want to have a good time and show the industry who I am and what I can do.”
Industry members interested in getting involved and supporting CREF’s efforts to assist secondary and post-secondary collision repair training programs should contact Brandon Eckenrode, managing director, at (312) 231-0258 or [email protected]. Monetary donations can be made online at CollisionEducationFoundation.org.