Savannah Jessee has known for years that she wanted to become a mechanic. The 17-year-old junior, who is on track to graduate from Crook County High School this year, grew up riding motorcycles and dirt bikes with her dad. She said she enjoys hands-on work and helping others, and after high school, she’s heading to Florida to attend the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute. Her dream is to one day own her own shop.

So when Jessee learned about the high school’s new internship at Kendall Ford of Prineville, in which students learn about the various jobs at a dealership, she signed up. Alongside six other students and dealership employees, she starts each school day at 7:45 a.m. to learn about car maintenance, basic mechanics, changing oil, detailing and selling cars.

“I’d rather go to work and do something I enjoy for the rest of my life than go to a job that I don’t enjoy and make more money,” said Jessee.The internship is meant to support a growing number of students seeking trade jobs post-high school instead of a four-year college education and helps address an ongoing labor shortage in the auto industry.

The program’s goal is to teach aspects of the whole industry. Working with professionals, the students rotate to a new specialty every two weeks. When they’re finished, they will receive a certificate that will allow them a head start as a master technician in the auto industry.

At least two rural school districts in Central Oregon are starting new auto-focused courses to accommodate the demand among students for trade jobs and provide students with alternative routes to four-year colleges that saddle many students with overwhelming debt.

Nationwide surveys portray a downward trend in college enrollment due to the pandemic. According to a November 2021 survey by the ECMC Group, a Minneapolis nonprofit that provides financial tools and services and career education and other programs for students, the amount of high school students considering four-year higher education has declined since the pandemic started, dropping from 71% to 48%.

Ryan Cochran, the career and technical education workforce development coordinator at Crook County High School, said roughly 55% of the school’s students are now choosing to pursue trade jobs over college, and he said that number is only growing.

“We’re in that upswing right now where (trade jobs) are pretty hot,” Cochran said.

Robert Durfee, the regional manager for Kendall Auto Group, also said that with college enrollment declining, “trades are becoming more and more important.” To help propel the program at Crook County High School, Kendall is covering costs of equipment, which typically soars into thousands of dollars. It is also providing space for the course, employees to mentor students and an old Ford truck the students will fix up and sell. Program graduates also have potential to get hired at the dealership. In a region that has become a widely sought out workplace destination, causing home prices to spike and greater employment competition, Durfee sees hiring students through the course as a critical way to support local families.

“We’re helping. We’re giving back,” he said. “That’s the plan.”

In Jefferson County, the school district obtained $125,000 in state grant funding in February for a similar automotive class, according to Melinda Boyle, the director of curriculum and instruction for the district. The funds will go toward a new course that the district’s two high schools hope to start next fall. Students in the course will learn how to conduct basic auto care, maintenance, oil changes, brake services, bookkeeping and much more.

The program was proposed by tribal officials from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs who wanted programs that support future career opportunities for students. Among those who pushed for the program was Val Switzler, the general manager for the tribes’ education administration.

A need for auto workers opened up on the reservation after the closure of the tribes’ own motor pool — an in-house facility where tribal enterprises could receive vehicle repairs for government cars and buses, Durfee said.

Indigenous communities in Oregon, too, have struggled to connect students with four-year colleges. A recent report from the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission showed that 88% of ninth-grade Native American and Alaska Native students surveyed did not get a college degree or certificate within six years of their high school graduation, compared to 77% for white students.

Durfee said career and technical education enrollment is increasing, but stopped short of saying this was a recent phenomenon. “I think students are looking for those higher wage and high-demand career pathways,” she said.

Jefferson County School District spokesperson Joey Prechtl said students involved in such programs are performing better academically, which follows statewide trends.

Wyatt Hammack, a 17-year-old junior at Crook County High School, is among the students pursuing his dream through the Kendall internship. He grew up working on cars with his brother and dad. When the opportunity to take the new course came along, he thought to himself, “This could be my whole life.”

Since Monday, Hammack has been draining oil, changing oil filters, checking transmissions and taking off tires. By the end of the course, he hopes to be hired as a master technician at Kendall.

“I want to be as full of information and wisdom that they can give me,” he said.

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Bryce Dole is an education reporter with The Bulletin. He previously worked as a government and public safety reporter with the East Oregonian. He grew up in Grants Pass and has lived in Oregon all his life.

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