“Observing students in the real world working in the dealership, as an engineer, or a shop supervisor has motivated me through my most difficult struggles.”

Joel Massarello was not on the “college track” in high school—in fact, he considered dropping out. But he went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in occupational safety, health and fire science as well as an associate degree in applied science and automotive technology, setting himself up for a promising career in industry. Massarello quickly earned master technician status and became a supervisor at a Caterpillar equipment dealership at a young age. Teaching wasn’t on his radar until a colleague there mentioned that the automotive instructor at Oakland Schools Technical Campus Northwest was retiring—midway through the academic year. The school was struggling to find someone to step in under stressful circumstances. Massarello decided he was up for the challenge.

His first day at the Clarkston, Michigan school was March 31, 2003, and he hasn’t looked back since, even earning a master’s degree in teaching. Massarello designed a curriculum focused on students’ futures. At the beginning of the automotive program, students meet business partners, immediately learning about the careers possible through automotive coursework. To master the skills they need for those jobs, Massarello’s students work on donated vehicles and equipment before working pro bono on vehicles for low-income families, the elderly, disabled people and even their fellow students in need. In addition to the volunteer repair work, students operate a business serving customer vehicles. Massarello credits this practice with keeping him up-to-date. “Many real-world automotive repairs pose different challenges on different vehicles, and it gives me an opportunity to stay sharp and current with what the demands are in industry,” he said.

Students earn Automotive Service Excellence certifications, their mechanic’s licenses and other certifications, along with dual enrollment credits. They explore all the career options open to them in the automotive industry, from management roles to product engineering to owning their own businesses. One highlight is what Massarello calls the “web quest,” when students research hiring notices in the automotive industry to see how much experience and education certain positions require—and how much they pay, including those that garner well into the six figures. “It is a constant reminder to all students that the work done in high school is going to help them realize their purpose,” Massarello said.

Career days, autoshows, competitions—where students often win regional and national contests—and “soft skills” work with General Motors, Suburban Collection and Hunter Engineering round out student learning. Massarello is currently working to give his students the chance to be dealer-certified for Subaru and Audi upon graduation. Massarello was a finalist for the 2017 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence.

“A wiring repair is just a wiring repair to a student, but a wiring repair that is done with mastery and held up as an example for the class is a motivator to strive for excellence.”