Where once he watched, auto technician now shows others

When his goal of becoming an automobile technician was fired up by a job-shadow visit to Duval’s Service Center in South Portland about a decade ago, Nick Gray had no idea he would one day come full circle.

Now, Gray works at Duval’s and has the opportunity to pass on his passion for fixing cars to a new generation since Mark Duval, owner of the garage on Park Avenue, continues to offer job-shadow opportunities to eighth-graders at South Portland’s two middle schools.

Last week, Garrett Lynn and Abby Heskett, students at Memorial Middle School,  followed Gray around and learned what his days are like as a highly trained auto mechanic.

Lynn and Heskett said they wanted to job shadow at Duval’s because they have a passion for engines and “everything to do with cars,” but Lynn, at least, is not quite sure yet that a career as an auto mechanic is for him.

However, both students indicated they are interested in attending the Portland Arts & Technology High School, or PATHS, once they are able. Typically, students begin attending the school as juniors.

That’s the road that Gray took in the mid-2000s. After graduating from PATHS, he attended both Central Maine Community College, where he graduated in 2009, and then Universal Technical Institute in Texas.

Gray worked for the Firestone chain for a while and then returned to Maine. He was working at Sullivan Tire when Duval heard he might be looking to change jobs.

“Mark called and the rest is history,” said Gray, who began his job at Duval’s late last year.

Hiring someone who job shadowed at his garage as a youngster was a treat for Duval.

“I never know whether the students who visit us each year go into the field or not,” he said.

He called the caliber of technician that Gray has become “pretty impressive” and emphasized to Lynn and Heskett that Gray has never stopped learning and is always looking to qualify for new certifications.

Being a successful auto tech these days, Duval told the kids, requires being very “tech savvy,” as well as mechanically astute. It also requires logic, strong math skills and good communication skills, along with patience.

Gray told the students that he’s found “great job satisfaction” in becoming an auto technician and said it’s his ongoing goal to learn as much as he can to be more marketable.

While the most fun he has on the job, Gray said, is taking something apart and putting it back together again, his days also include working with onboard computers and doing research online.

Lynn and Heskett both said that for them the hands-on part of auto repair is what interests them most, and Duval equated the manual part of the job to “dancing with your hands.”

Lynn said he was enjoying everything he was learning at the garage last week, and said his favorite cars are old sports cars, like the 1978 Camaro.

Heskett said, “I’m a truck girl,” and said her favorite kind of truck is a Chevrolet, “definitely a Chevy.”

When asked what his favorite vehicle is, Gray said, “one that’s running.”

Duval, who employs five technicians at his garage, told the students that the auto service trade “will change, maybe more so than any other trade” in the years to come, which “bodes well for the future of the industry.”

He added, “Cars are getting more and more advanced and that’s why these kids need to start thinking about their future now.”

Duval said that whereas a two-year associate’s degree might have been enough for auto techs in the past, in the future they’d likely need a four-year degree, as well.

The overall message he had for the students was that “education never stops.”

Jane Eberle, the director of business partnerships with the South Portland School Department, said the job-shadow program, which is offered twice a year, is “designed to introduce eighth-graders to the many different career options (available) in our community.”

She said the job-shadow opportunity is the culmination of a career exploration unit taught by both eighth-grade teachers and school guidance counselors. 

Eberle said for the actual job-shadow day, the students are “presented with many different host site (options), from which they select their top choices.”

She said the job-shadow opportunity and career exploration unit are important for eighth-graders because it “helps identify educational goals and career paths from the very beginning of their high school years, (which allows them to choose) appropriate course options to meet their goals and objectives.”

Eberle said Duval has been welcoming job-shadow students to his garage for almost 20 years, ever since the start of the program.

Some of the other businesses in town that hosted students last week included the Marriott at Sable Oaks, the U.S. Coast Guard, Linscott Real Estate, SMRT Architects, the culinary arts department at Southern Maine Community College and both the South Portland fire and police departments.

In addition, Eberle said, many students find businesses on their own willing to offer job shadowing.

For Molly Aldrich, the director of volunteer services with the South Portland School Department, the power of “a hands-on, real-world experience can’t be underestimated.”

“The students get to interact in actual professional environments, collaborate and communicate with businesspeople and see what a certain career actually looks like,” she said.

Aldrich also praised the “enthusiastic participation of our area’s business community” for making the job-shadow program such a success through the years.

Mark Duval, left, offers a job-shadow opportunity to South Portland eighth-graders Abby Heskett and Garrett Lynn, center, last week. The two students spent the morning following automotive technician Nick Gray, right, who went through the same job shadowing program at Duval’s Service Center when he was a student at Mahoney Middle School about a decade ago.

Mark Duval, the owner of Duval’s Service Center in South Portland, has been offering job shadow opportunities to local students for almost 20 years.