April 2, 2015 by Laura Stetser
Home of The Current and Gazette Newspapers
EHT ‘car guy’ on a mission to restore auto body education in Atlantic County EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP – Inside a nondescript concrete building along Oakland Avenue in Egg Harbor Township, John Truman is in the midst of several projects. His auto restoration shop is full, though it is not a commercially advertised business. Word of mouth alone has delivered the many muscle cars that are in all stages of repair and disrepair around this rectangular space, some from as far away as South Carolina. His 24-year-old son Dan works alongside him, learning and adding his own skills to the business. Truman has managed to create quite a business for himself over 36 years in the industry. The work pays well and is steady. “You know, we’re not millionaires, but I drive a nice truck and so does my son,” said the owner of Truman Muscle Cars, adding that neither of the men are “what you would call book smart.” But he said that doesn’t matter. He holds up his hands and says, “These are what we are good with. We know how to build things. You give us anything, and we can take it apart and put it back together again. And you can make a good living doing it.” The self-described “car guy” said that growing up, there used to be lots of tradesmen, those who loved building things rather than taking a traditional path to college. He was surrounded by them when he started working on cars as a 16-year-old boy. But today, he said, the educational world has led many young adults to believe the only future is one that involves more academic pursuits. Yet Truman said he believes the interest in the trade still exists among young students, even though the exposure to learning how
to do the work is diminishing. According to him, if schools build a program, the students will come. “My son’s friends come here all of the time and they are blown away at what we do. They think it is so cool,” he explains. “You just have to promote the programs in the right way to get their attention.” So when he heard that one of the local vocational high schools had cancelled its auto body program out of a lack of interest, his wheels started turning. “If you show the kids this restoration stuff, they will get lit up just like I did and like my son did,” he said.
be. That school should be the last stop for students to get skills they can use to get a job. Not everybody wants to sit behind a computer all day,” he said. “I was trained there, and I’ve done very well. And the facilities are already there.” The auto body courses at other vocational and technical schools have met the same fate in the past few years.
Restoration work is where the creativity and enjoyment come in, he said, and, it’s also the market where there are jobs waiting.
A vo-tech school in Camden County cancelled its program a few years ago, and Cumberland County’s school is considering cancelling its course when its current instructor retires in October, Truman said.
Local educational trends tell a different story
“It makes no sense,” Truman said. “There are jobs out there for these kids.”
Truman was sparked into action after hearing that his and his son’s alma mater, Atlantic County Institute of Technology, cancelled its high school auto body program in the 2014-2015 school year.
He has been pleading his case to the ACIT administration for months.
The school still offers evening courses for adults, though the focus of the curriculum is mostly on mechanics and engine work. “They are going away from being a trade school, and that’s exactly what it should
“What happens every time there is a snow storm?” he said. “People need to get cars fixed. They just need to be trained how to do it.” He said not every kid is college-bound, especially with the rising cost of higher education. >> continued on back
“How many overeducated people you know that are working at Starbucks right now?” he asked. He said that with Atlantic City’s main industry in decline, tomorrow’s local workforce is going to need different skill sets to find work, and it has to be schools that offer the training rather than on-the-job shadowing. “I would like to take a lifetime of trial and error and show this generation all my trade secrets,” he said on why he volunteered to help bring the program back to ACIT. “I had to learn from looking over someone’s shoulder because they were afraid of losing their job if a younger guy could do their job making less money than they were.” But officials at the school said student interest is not enough to sustain the program. “We cannot keep offering a class just for three or four kids,” said Jamie Moscony, director of curriculum and instruction at ACIT. Through Truman’s campaigning, Moscony said the school would introduce an after-school club to its high school students next year with his help and expertise. She said activities will include restoration projects with one of the cars from Truman’s shop, and the administration will involve its media students who will film the club’s work and make a promotional video to market the club to potential students to aid in recruitment.
National push for the trades Truman is not alone in his quest to bring the auto body and restoration trade back into prominence. Hagerty Insurance Company, a niche business that offers policies to collectors, launched a nonprofit organization whose goal is “to bring back shop classes.” According to Diane Fitzgerald, national director of the Hagerty Education Program at America’s Car Museum (www.hagertyeducationprogram.org), the organization is concerned there is a lack of training going on to support a global growing interest in collector cars. To date the organization has awarded $2.75 million to programs around the country.
“We are concerned that the knowledge and skills for restoration and preservation are going to die off with the older restoration and preservation guys,” Fitzgerald said. “We are very concerned, so we are doing something about it.” Fitzgerald, a lifelong “car guy” herself, said the interest in vintage, antique and historic cars is growing on a global scale. She explained from casual events known as “cruising” all the way to very prestigious car shows like the Concourse d’Elegance, peoJohn Truman, standing, looks over the work being done on ple are willing to spend a lot of a muscle car at his auto restoration shop in Egg Harbor money on these cars. In the 64th Township. ‘We bring cars back from the dead,’ he said. Annual Concours d’Elegance in Pebble Beach, a Ferari GTO was sold for $38 million, making it recently gave $1 million to the state of the most expensive car ever sold at auction. Georgia to bring back ‘shop’ classes to its schools. The organization aims to be an “All of this stimulates a need for workers informational and financial resource to who know how to restore,” she said. reverse the “growing decline of skilled labor Besides the collector vehicles, she said there in the United States.” is an entire circuit of vintage race car events In an interview about the donation, in which the vehicles need constant restoration and maintenance to keep in the races. Ratzenberger said the trend started in the 1960s. Once Truman contacted her, he connected “About 30, 40 years ago, they started canher with ACIT in an effort to coordinate celing shop courses, not thinking that they funding for a revamped program there. were necessary. And people forgot that’s Fitzgerald said though she endorsed the what brought us to the dance,” he said. “I new club, she is not able to offer funding to mean, we’re a nation of self-reliant, self-sufthe school at this point. The organization ficient people — we were. And that’s what only provides financial grants to programs I’m doing down here in Atlanta. I’m going that are already up and running. But, she to be presenting the governor with a million said the club is a good restart. dollar check from my foundation today to “I couldn’t help them with funding, but I start the national education initiative. All can help them with ideas,” she said, adding the schools in Georgia, hopefully we can that students who can prove an interest turn it around and spread it to other states.” and a talent in the trade could be eligible Fitzgerald said she hopes to make the for paid scholarships through the Hagerty foundation aware of the decline in New organization. Jersey’s educational opportunities. She’s also connecting him with other “I hope New Jersey is next place that gets supporters, including John Ratzenberger, $1 million,” she said. “The next generation best known for playing the character of Clif of craftsmen need to be taught and trained Claven on “Cheers.” Truman has been in to ensure that this perceived dying art does contact with his representatives, but they not go away.” have not yet connected for a promised conference call to discuss possible funding opportunities. Contact Truman about his campaign on his As the head on the nonprofit organization Foundation for America, Ratzenberger
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