By MARINA WATERS
When you walk into the collision repair class at David Crockett High School, students are meticulously sanding fenders and spraying a final coat of paint on their finished products.
By the looks and sounds of the room, you might think you’ve walked into a real, working body shop. And that’s exactly what Rick Freeman — with the help of his friends at Olde Jonesborough Body Shop — is aiming for.
“I try to make it as real in here as I can. This industry’s wide open. Why? It’s hard work. It’s kind of dirty work,” Freeman said. “The auto body industry has a lot of different limbs on the tree, meaning you can go into the office, you could be an adjuster, you could own your own business. The sky’s the limit. Car’s have got to be fixed. And you know how many’s on the road.”
Freeman teamed up with Nikki Carson who operates the Olde Jonesborough Body Shop and has donated brand new fenders and paint to offer collision repair students a hands-on experience. Carson has brought auto-body materials to David Crockett, her alma mater, for the past five weeks. But she also brings her body shop knowledge (which she’s accumulated through her childhood and now into adulthood), along with the motivation to better her chances of improving the industry and providing an opportunity for over 80 high school students to learn about the trade.
“I love the industry so much, however, we’re having a shortage of techs,” Carson said. “I feel like there’s not enough focus on the technical programs in the high schools or at the community colleges. The only way to really combat that, I felt like, was to get in here and work with them. They don’t get enough money or resources for what they need. This is so far behind in the times and they don’t have the money to do it. They’re getting just a touch of it and then there’s nothing after this to get them there.”
Freeman had been contacting local body shops and paint suppliers to see if he could get supplies to better teach his students about the industry, which was a mission he started following his professional development training through the school system. He had gathered any local used fenders he could find for the class to work on.
Now, Carson said the classes are using a more updated and environment-friendly alternative, water-based paint, rather than oil-based paint.
Freeman also said local shops like Paint & Lacquer Supply in Johnson City have helped out in addition to Olde Jonesborough Body Shop. Carson said A & E Frame & Body in Johnson City and Blue Ridge Color Company in Blountville have also been a big help to local collision repair programs at places like Crockett and Northeast State Community College.
With those materials, Carson has shown Freeman’s classes everything from how to get a dent out of a fender to how to begin the paint process. She even said she is planning to add an estimating class to teach students how to correctly tear down a car, label and identify the parts, and read and write an estimate.
But she didn’t come alone; Carson has also brought Olde Jonesborough Body Shop paint shop manager Jonathan Lefevers to show the Crockett students what his job entails.
“The biggest thing is, I didn’t have a body shop class when I was in high school,” Lefevers said. “I started painting when I was 16 but I had to go to a friend’s house whose dad did it and I did it on the side. It wasn’t really the right way to learn how to do it, so whenever me and Nikki started talking about coming down here, I was really excited to be a part of it because I wish I had someone that would come in and say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna work with you. We’re going to show you how to do this the right way.’”
Though teaching students the logistics of the auto-body industry is at the top of Carson and Lefevers’ lists, changing the way in which others perceive their line of work is also of importance.
“It’s important to let them see if it’s something they want to do, they have the ability to do it,” Lefevers said. “Everybody thinks they need to work on computers or they need to be a lawyer or a doctor, this that and the other. That’s great and we need all those things, but in this country, we need tradesman too. We need people to do air-conditioning. We need plumbers, electricians, auto body men because nobody wants to do that anymore. We have such a hard time trying to find people to actually work because no one’s going into this business.”
Carson said she was committed to changing the stigma around working in the industry, but she also said being a woman who runs and operates a body shop, has added to the way in which she is sometimes perceived.
“As a woman, I run a body shop. People are amazed at that sometimes. I help take cars apart, I prep cars, I do whatever it takes to run it,” Carson said. “There is such a stigma on our business that we must be ignorant and uneducated. We can’t possibly be smart enough to run a business if we work on cars and get our hands dirty. If nothing else, I want to work on changing the look of anyone who’s in the technical field — a plumber, mechanic, auto body tech, anything. We need to change that stigma that’s on that.”
For Lefevers, he not only had to seek his own education when it came to gaining experience in the auto body paint process, but part of the reason he left his hometown stemmed from that very same stigma around physical work.
“I grew up in southeast Kentucky and the only industry in my town was coal mines,” Lefevers said. “The reason I left is because my mom said she didn’t want me to work in the coal mines. Well that’s kinda how the whole country is kinda going: ‘I don’t want my kid to work with their hands. They need to go do something else.’ But that’s why we try to come in here and get passion started because you can make a good living doing this.”
Carson and Lefevers said that while the number of body shop technicians seems to have dwindled, the demand for those jobs have skyrocketed. Though they’re partially hoping their work with Crockett students will add to their pool of potential future hires, they, along with Freeman — who started his career with an apprenticeship at Griffith Motors followed by 25 years of work at Cox Oldsmobile — are also wanting to show students what it really takes to do this job.
“Sometimes (those working in the industry) don’t show where the rubber meets the road. And I’m the guy who wants to show you the real world and what it is,” Freeman said. “It’s not easy. Sometimes they’ll work in the shop and they’ll find out it’s not what they want to do. But it take a lot of people to make the world go around. It’s rewarding. It’s artwork. You’ve gotta love it and you’ll be alright. You’ve gotta follow your heart in whatever you’re doing.”
Each student will get to walk out of the class with their freshly painted fender at the end of the semester, but Freeman, Lefevers and Carson are also hoping they leave the class with a bit more knowledge and a more positive outlook on the auto-body industry.
“I just wish that people could understand that there’s nothing wrong with working with your hands. That’s the main reason I want to get down here. I want to give these kids something I didn’t have: a kind of positive experience so they can say, ‘He’s doing really well and he seems to be happy. Maybe I could do that.’” I think there’s this false sense of happiness where you have to have a big house and a big car. It’s not true.
“The self-fulfillment of knowing you took something and did it with your hands is way more important than what you drive.”