by Dorothee Kellinghusen, staff writer
Photos by Dorothee Kellinghusen and Wyatt Pace
The auto shop crew has operated for several weeks now without a staff supervisor. Nevertheless, the 12 students on the crew are taking care of the college fleet of more than 100 vehicles. It seems almost impossible for college students to be on their own to repair golf carts, trucks and tractors. But the auto shop can and does.
“They are a terrific bunch” said Gary Bigelow, the Facilities Management and Technical Services Director. “They are doing a great job… It’s an amazing team.”
The crew not having a supervisor was not exactly intentional. The previous supervisor, Jonathan Unger, left abruptly at the end of the spring semester and, despite an intensive search over the summer, no permanent replacement could be found.
The crew consists of Rebecca Truitt, Elias Grant, Zac Selix, Frankie Secret, Loren O’Rourke, Alex Hatch, Sarah Edwards, Carsyn McGregor-Short, Nathan Litz, Sidney Idzikowski, Cameron Thacker and Abby Wallace. Six of these 12 students are new to the crew this semester. Secret, a junior at Warren Wilson, is one of the newcomers. He had just finished some work on a truck when he explained: “We run this shop together as a team. We don’t have anybody we can ask, so we learn from each other, from manuals and searching the web.” Wallace said that luckily the crew members have different talents and knowledge of skills. Selix, for example, used to work with a welder and does most of that kind of work. Edwards took over the demands of the office, keeping up with orders, schedules and purchases. The others appreciate her work and support her as much as they can.
The crew does not perform major repairs which require extensive professional skills or knowledge. Nor does the crew work on the larger vans and busses that the college uses for service trips and the like. However, the auto shop does take care of regular maintenance and smaller repairs of the many vehicles used on campus by other crews such as landscaping, the farm, the garden, forestry, tree crew and others. Some of these crew supervisors are able to do minor repairs themselves, but mostly they rely on the auto shop.
All students working in the auto shop agree that they have learned a lot in the past few months about managing the shop, working independently, but also as a team. It requires good communication, because as is true for a lot of crews, the members don’t see each other all of the time. The Wednesday afternoon meetings are essential for talking about issues, making a schedule and keeping everybody in the loop.
Bigelow observed that “the students take good care of each other. They make sure the safety procedures are followed and they help each other out.”
Abby Wallace currently acts as the crew boss of the auto shop. According to Bigelow and Dean of Work Ian Robertson, without her leadership, the shop would not function as well as it does. Wallace is a senior and has been on the crew for three years.
Secret gives her credit for her knowledge, skills and leadership by saying that “Abby is a rock star. She truly is.” Before the interview, Wallace was helping Hatch to figure out a short term solution for a broken back window. She advised Hatch what material to use, how to cut the piece and finally how to cover the opening.
Wallace admits, though, “it is not easy to be without a supervisor.” What all students on the crew miss the most is the opportunity to learn from an experienced auto mechanic.
“We use the computer for diagnoses, but a professional can probably tell by the sound of the vehicle or the way it acts what the problem is,” Wallace said. “We do not have this expertise and have to try a lot of things before we figure out the cause of a problem.”
YouTube and manuals are often the best sources to find a solution. However, the truth is that a number of vehicles cannot be used, which limits the effectiveness of the crews who rely on them. There is only so much 12 students can do to keep an entire fleet of hardworking machines available and safe at all times.
But the crew members are not completely on their own. Bigelow is an appreciated resource. Also, he tours through the shop regularly and makes himself available to the independent student crew. “He makes sure that we get the things we need”, said Secret. Bigelow attends their Wednesday afternoon meetings and plans to bring people in for safety training, such as hydraulic lift safety procedures, or to demonstrate specific skills.
Support comes also from the Chandler Automotive and Tire Center in Swannanoa. Robertson, Bigelow and all of the crew members mentioned the kindness of Frank Chandler, Jr., the local auto shop’s owner. He is the contractor for major repairs, but also comes to campus to help the student crew when they are stuck with a problem. “He does that on his private time, which is amazing,” said Wallace.
Even though the crew takes this challenge as an opportunity to grow and to make the best out of the situation, the students are hoping soon to have a supervisor. They envision the new person to be a master of the trade, a good teacher, a mentor and friend. And they dream about all the opportunities that might come with a new boss: “When Jonathan was here, he worked with us to convert the old Chevy truck into an electric powered vehicle,” Wallace said. “It was a challenge and great project to put the electric motor in. I miss that kind of work.”
Robertson, Bigelow and many other staff members are using all available resources to find an experienced master mechanic who is also willing to teach. Robertson said that the current economic situation makes people hesitant to move for a new job. The search team thought in October that they found the right person, but he changed his mind after just one and a half days on campus. “The situation is frustrating for all of us,” said Robertson.
And it may not improve if the college is unable to find a supervisor for the crew. In less than two weeks, Wallace will be graduating from Warren Wilson. The next in line for leadership is experienced crew member Elias Grant who is also a senior, but he graduates in May. He is willing to take on the leadership position, but he realizes that the situation is not ideal. Wallace summarized the problem: “We are capable of doing a lot of things and we are willing to teach ourselves. But we cannot make up for the lack of experience.”