The garage doors that lead to the old auto shop class at Roseburg High School are open again with a brand new alignment rack and new technology lining the west wall. Automotive teacher Don Zell is ready for the group of 150 students, the first in six years, to arrive Wednesday.

Zell repainted the “nicotine yellow” classroom, decorated now with car logos and his many certifications, and he brought in a refrigerator and a foosball table to make the kids feel welcome and at ease.

“If they know you care, then they will listen,” Zell said. “I try to build a safe spot for the kids.”

The program is designed to take three years, so Zell wanted mostly freshmen and sophomores who could finish the whole program and get all of their certifications.

Some upperclassmen, like senior Rose Berry, managed to find their way onto his roster.

“I feel like it’s going to be a really fun program and I want to get in on the ground floor,” Berry said. “In case I need to work in a mechanic shop. And it’s good anytime you have to work anywhere with tools. I wish it had been here earlier because I am a senior and I can only take one year.”

Students who finish the program will be able to take a test for Automotive Service Excellence certifications, which Zell is qualified to administer through the Universal Technical Institute.

The closest of the 13 UTI campuses is in Sacramento with 1,200 students and $50,000 tuition. Admissions counselor Steele Witchek attended Zell’s community meeting Wednesday night to help answer questions about the certifications and offer suggestions.

“CTE programs have been disappearing for a long time,” Witchek said. “Auto shops in particular are expensive. We have 4,000 companies offering to pay for our students schools because they are so desperate. They have thousands of positions they are trying to fill. Our school is six hours away and I was up here the next day after he called to meet with him.”

Several managers for local auto shops and dealerships showed up at the community meeting as well, anxious to see how they could contribute to the program and to see what they were getting out of it. Ron Lindsey, the service manager at Lithia Ford, said he knows they won’t see any results of the program for a few years, but he’s willing to wait.

“It’s an investment we have to make now,” Lindsey said. “It’s technologically way more advanced than it used to be. Shop techs are dwindling and the youngest generation is hungry for anything.”

Other shop managers like Dan Smith at Les Schwab said the job market now is already tight and it’s just going to get more competitive. Smith said they are looking for at least one person in each of their shops including one or two mechanics and they are hard spots to fill.

“Everybody needs somebody to work on their cars,” Smith said. “This is really attractive for employers to see they’ve got hands on training already. The field isn’t just flush with mechanics.”

Zell said out of 150 students, he normally sees about 10 to 15 who will go on to be mechanics in shops immediately after high school and a few who will after a few years to mature at a trade school or community college.

“The mechanical skills are actually really easy to teach, but the soft skills and the technical skills are the hardest,” Zell said. “Everything I teach, they are going to use. I make sure in the first couple of weeks they know what’s going on.”

Even if the students don’t go on to be mechanics or otherwise tied to the industry, data from the Oregon Department of Education shows students who participate in career and technical education programs like auto shop graduate at a rate of 77 percent, compared to 69 percent for all students in Douglas County public schools.

“Historically, nationwide, we went through decades of pushing for college readiness,” Roseburg High School assistant principal Brett Steinacher said. “Here in Oregon, there is a huge awareness and understanding that not all students are going to have the ambition or the means to go to college. Kids that are committed to career and technical pathways have a significantly higher graduation rate and are better prepared for life after high school.”

The $290,000 program is funded primarily with Measure 98 funding, the High School Graduation and College Career Readiness Act of 2016, designed to assist school districts with improving high school graduation rates along with post-secondary options.

According to the Oregon Department of Education, nearly $2 million of high school success funding was allocated to schools in Douglas County including $765,000 for Roseburg Public Schools. Other programs in the county include Yoncalla expanding their shop program and a Career and Technical Education center for several South County schools.

Students who take more than three credits in career and technical programs are even more likely to graduate, showing a 80.5 percent graduation rate last year in the state.

Division leader for Career and Technical Education, Sheri Carson, said they surveyed the students about bringing the auto program back and the results were clear.

“Out of 1,270 surveys returned, 200 didn’t want it or didn’t care,” Carson said. “The rest wanted it, with a 50/50 split between boys and girls. I’m just excited to have it back.”

Students who finish this program and get all of their certifications are technically qualified to start work with a living wage job after high school, but Zell and Lindsey said learning never stops, especially for mechanics.

“I’ve been doing it for 24 years and I still do training,” Lindsey said. “People think you go to a two-year school and are a master tech. It’s still all about experience.”

Janelle Polcyn can be reached at or 541-957-4204. Or follow her on Twitter @JanellePolcyn.

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Business reporter

Janelle Polcyn is the business reporter at The News-Review, graduated from the University of Texas, and is a podcast enthusiast.

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