05 June 2018

There's A Bike Mechanic In The Family!

My high school had a vocational-technical ("vo-tech") program that trained students to work as auto mechanics, beauticians and as other skilled trades- and craft-people.

That high school served a fairly large township that included everything from mansions with Cadillacs in their driveways (In those days, you had as much of a chance, on any given day, of seeing a BMW or Mercedes as you did of meeting a member of the Royal Family.) to storm-battered bungalows with tousled kids tumbling on bristly lawns.  What they had in common was aspiration, whether from the parents or the kids themselves.  

Such aspiration wasn't limited to economic mobility:  People wanted to increase their status and reputation.  A decal from a prestigious college or university on the rear window of a family's car meant that the parents "did something right" in raising their child; dirty hands and clothes meant that the kid didn't work hard--or simply wasn't smart--enough and were seen as signs of poor parenting.

So, the success of my high school, and many others, was measured by the percentage of our graduates who went to college--never mind that the kids who became auto mechanics or plumbers or beauticians could make as much money as those who became educated professionals.  Training for one of those trades was seen as the "loser track", in contrast to "the college track" and other more prestigious paths in the school.

Because such scenarios played out all over the US, many high schools ended their vo-tech programs and new schools opened without them.  Young people and their families continued to equate success with graduating from college and entering white-collar professions.  In the meantime, auto mechanics, beauticians and the like got older and employers had a hard time finding replacements, just as those jobs became more technically sophisticated.  

Then college tuitions started to rise at a much faster rate than prices in general. (My salary hasn't kept pace--it's not even close!)  And companies figured out that their office work could be automated or relocated just as easily as assembly-line jobs.  So, the college degree that costs so much more than it once did is no longer the ticket to a "good" job and middle-class life it once was.

Also, because people had a harder time getting good jobs, they started fixing stuff--including cars and appliances-- they would have tossed or replaced earlier.  Now, as a result, some young people and their families are starting to realize that their may well be more of a future--especially for a kid who doesn't like to sit still and read--in the kinds of work people in my generation were taught to disdain.

Another result of what I've described is that people are riding bikes to work and school.  Those bikes need to be kept running, and not everyone has the time or inclination to adjust their brakes or shifters, or fix their flats.  At the same time, bikes are getting more technically sophisticated.  This means mechanics, who are increasingly referred to as "technicians" will need to be more skilled.

As a bike shop owner, Berri Michel is certainly aware of what I'm saying.  She had trouble finding good employees for Bicycle Trip, her Santa Cruz, California shop.  So she did what any desperate employer might do:  She trained people.  Specifically, she showed high-school students how to fix bikes.  That was back in 2007.

That was the beginning of Project Bike Tech, in which students earn academic credit for learning how to repair bicycles.  Since then, it has expanded to other schools in California and three other schools in Colorado and Minnesota plan to start similar programs soon.  The scope of the course, which spans four semesters, has also grown.  Now students learn interviewing, resume-writing and team-building techniques in addition to adjusting headsets and truing wheels.

Ms. Michel says that in the class, students are introduced to other bicycle-industry careers such as fabrication, marketing, sales and graphic design.  And, because students don't sacrifice their academic training to learn the bike trade, they are also ready to go to college or enter other careers when they graduate.  Some even pursue other trade careers like construction and auto mechanics because "they discover that they love working with their hands," says Project Bike Tech director Mercedes Ross.

Could the day come when parents proudly announce, "There's a bike mechanic in the family!"


  1. This hits close to home. Glad to see high school programs like this! Our youngest son. our soon to be junior has never liked school and has refashioned a mtn. Bike into a dirt jumper so he's good with his hands. I'm encouraging him to attend a bike mechanics school for starters.

  2. Annie--Something told me you're a good mother. Now you've confirmed it. If your son likes to tinker, let him. It might be, ironically, what leads him to college. Even if it doesn't, he has a better chance of getting a good job (or starting a business) he actually likes and making a satisfying life for himself than if he goes to college because of peer or family pressure.