Students ready for auto body career – with a surprise gift of required tools

Students ready for auto body career – with a surprise gift of required tools

Three students in the auto body program at Salem’s Career Technical Education Center recently got a surprising boost to launch their professional careers.

Daniel Mendoza, Julian Moran and Eddie Ceja were awarded a prestigious national scholarship that gave them each $1,000 worth of tools and a tool box. They also recently got a trip to the national Collision Industry Conference in Palm Springs, California, where they were recognized on stage before 500 professionals.

The seniors are in their second year of the auto body repair and painting program, part of the Salem-Keizer School District’s constellation of training programs that prepare students for a variety of careers.

Alex Crays, the auto body instructor, said he constantly hears from auto body shops looking for workers.

“There is a massive shortage of technicians in the auto body industry,” Crays said. “It’s really bad.”

He has 25 students in the advanced program and another 52 who are in the first year of the program.

“I have more job offers from shop owners who contact me than actual students who want to go into this industry,” Crays said. “We pretty much place every student who wants to be placed in the auto body industry.”

He takes a “keys-to-keys” approach in teaching students. They learn every step of the process from the time a car owner turns over the keys to the moment they pick them up.

“Our teacher shows us how to communicate with the customer, how to talk to the customer – shake their hand, say their name,” said Mendoza, a senior.

In the first year, students learn about every career in the industry, from customer service representative to estimator to painter.

In the second year, they get more hands on to repair customer vehicles.

“We operate mostly as a functioning body shop,” Crays said. “We do have every piece of equipment that you would find in a standard shop. We look like a body shop.”

But Crays said attitude is as important as skills.

“Professionalism is a really big deal at CTEC,” Crays said. “Professionalism isn’t taught anywhere.”

Mendoza applied for the program to follow in the footsteps of his father, who is an auto body painter.

In his first year, he learned dent repair procedures and then went to work fixing a damaged car door.

“It was a cool experience,” Mendoza said. “I liked doing it. It was a more realistic scenario.”

The student program takes in vehicles from real customers, who get a price break on the work.

Mendoza said the most challenging repair so far this year was on a Ford pickup truck “that had a lot of little things. There was damage around the door that was hard to get to.”

Mendoza was there when the owner came to retrieve the repaired truck.

“I shook his hand. He looked at the truck and said ‘You did a good job,’” Mendoza said.

Crays worked in the industry until taking over the Salem student program four years ago.

He learned of the March Taylor scholarships through industry contacts. The scholarships are named for a long-time auto body industry leader.

The three students selected based on class criteria knew they were going to Palm Springs.

The trip was funded in part by Ron Reichen, owner of Precision Body and Paint Inc., based in Beaverton. Crays once worked for the company.

“The students had no idea that they were going to get tools,” Crays said. “The idea is to set them up with starter tools so they can start day one without going into debt buying tools.”

Mendoza said he appreciates the head start.

“When we go into the industry, we don’t have to worry about buying” needed tools, he said.

He’s eager to put the tools to use and plans to start working right after high school graduation, aiming to be a painter like his father.

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