For Starkville Daily News
Grady Graham pulled his first clutch, on a 1949 Ford, when he was 8 years old. Back then, on his family’s farm in Ethel, deconstructing tractors and work trucks wasn’t job training so much as daily life.
Since then and up to his retirement last month from East Mississippi Community College’s Automotive Services Technology program after 28 years on the job, Graham’s life has been the definition of on-the-job training. After completing automotive skills trade classes at Mississippi State University, he continued to spend six months out of each year taking classes while working as an auto technician at multiple car dealerships. Even after taking over the automotive program at EMCC, he still spent 20 hours a year in class to maintain his certification as a Master Technician through the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence.
The point is, when it comes to auto repair, there’s not much Grady Graham doesn’t know how to do or how to teach. But as an instructor and mentor to hundreds over the years, he taught himself a far more valuable skill: how to help students land a job.
Graham’s presence can be felt from service departments at major dealerships to owner-run shops all over the Golden Triangle. Shane Orrick, service manager at Starkville Ford and an EMCC alum himself, estimates 90 percent of his staff is made up of EMCC grads. In the service bay at Carl Hogan Chevrolet in Columbus, you can hardly spend five minutes talking to an EMCC grad half-buried under the hood of a new Camaro without another EMCC grad walking by on his way to the parts pick-up window.
“For years, whenever I go to a garage to get my car worked on, the first thing I say when I walk in is, ‘I work with Grady Graham,’” said Linda Gates, director of Job Placement and Work-Based Learning at EMCC.
Gates’ job is to help students find work in their field of study before and after graduation. She says automotive technicians are already in high demand, but coming from EMCC’s program with the recommendation of Graham and fellow automotive instructor Dale Henry is as close as EMCC can come to guaranteeing employment.
“They’re turning out great graduates,” says Orrick. “They know what they need to know to get started.”
That’s because Graham and Henry have been working in tandem to make EMCC the top automotive program in Mississippi since Henry came on board in 2007.
The Spark Plug
Henry, from Edinburg, was an automotive instructor at McKellar Vocational Center in Columbus and served on the committee that granted EMCC National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation certification in 2007. And when he transitioned to EMCC, although Graham had been entrenched as the lone automotive instructor since 1984, he said Graham was up for anything as long as it advanced the program.
“He allowed me to come in and implement any ideas I wanted to. We changed things on a yearly basis, from the equipment to the ways we taught. Now my challenge is to bring someone in to replace him who shares my vision of wanting to be the No. 1 automotive program out there. I want to be known not just here in Mississippi, but everywhere,” said Henry.
Another change Henry implemented was increasing EMCC’s participation in Skills USA, a state- and nationwide vocational skills competition. Henry, a gold medal winner as a student at the Mississippi Skills USA competition, increased EMCC’s yearly automotive participants from one to four and found immediate success when an EMCC student won first place at state and national competition in Automotive Job Skills Demonstration in 2007. In the past five years, EMCC has seen three of its students finish first at national competition in automotive categories and 23 gold medals at the state level in automotive.
While success at competition certainly raises the profile of EMCC’s automotive program, Henry says it’s no substitute for the ultimate indicator of a program’s success: job placement. And that, he says, was Graham’s specialty.
“What Grady’s done here in the past is big shoes for me to fill,” he said. “He still wants us to be No. 1 and will still be a part of that in the future, serving on committees for me.
“I feel like when he retired I had his support 100 percent and that’s a testament to our relationship over the last five years.”
Arriving At Destination
Graham’s plans for the future include some conventional retirement benchmarks. He hopes to travel and he plans to restore several of his old cars: a ’46 Chevy pickup and a pair of 70s-model Ford Broncos. But he’ll continue attending classes to retain his certification, ensuring he’ll remain a valuable asset to the program he helped build.
“The program has changed a lot in 28 years,” said Graham. “We live in an electronic world and students have to have a good electronics background. The equipment has been upgraded, but we’ve got one of the most up-to-date shops in the state.”
That up-to-date equipment, along with a healthy dose or hard work and Graham’s approval, helped Paul Baucom, 41, of Columbus secure a job at Carl Hogan Chevrolet during his second year in the automotive program. As soon as he graduated in 2011, Baucom moved to a full-time position at Carl Hogan, and it was right on time as he had been unemployed for three years after being laid off from an agricultural equipment dealer. Not to mention his wife was pregnant with the couple’s fourth child.
“It was a huge relief having a job lined up and made the second year of the program a lot easier. If it wasn’t for Mr. Graham, I wouldn’t be here. He was a major help,” said Baucom.
Graham and Henry helped Heath Crenshaw of Adaton, a 2008 EMCC graduate who is also a technician at Carl Hogan Chevrolet, transition confidently into his career working on cars. Even if the cars he was working on at EMCC weren’t quite as up-to-date as the equipment he was using.
“They help you not to be overwhelmed when you tear into a car,” said Crenshaw of Graham and Henry’s instruction. “But when you get your first few brand-new cars and you’ve got to start drilling holes in them, that’s a bit of a surprise.”
Chase Franks of Houston, a 2011 EMCC grad, said the instructors prepared him to work autonomously when he began as a technician at Starkville Ford thanks to old-fashioned repetition.
“They taught me well enough that, when I got out of school, I wasn’t scared to do anything. When you go through a repair, they are standing right next to you and whenever they see you’ve got a problem they’ll come in and show you how to fix it. Then they’ll take it apart and make you do it again,” said Franks.
Henry points out that not everyone who’s interested in working on cars is cut out to be a technician, but he says the environment in the shop at EMCC is close enough to industry working conditions that those who can’t handle the grease and the sweat usually find out in class, rather than at work. But things are bright for those who do remain in the program and exhibit the right traits. Demand for reliable technicians remains very high and Graham says the best technicians in certain parts of the South can earn more than $100,000 annually.