Competition showcases automotive skills, training, careers

By Bill Howard

A difficult, and all-too-common, decision high-school kids have to make is whether, upon graduation, to go to college or enter the workforce.

For those oriented more toward a technical career, the automotive field is a very viable landing spot.

Last Thursday, more than 500 potential future automotive employees from across East Tennessee gathered at The Crown College on W. Beaver Creek Drive for the 31st annual Top Wrench Competition.

Top Wrench is a Drug-Free Tennessee non-profit that stages a yearly competition focusing on automotive skills. According to the press release, the event is designed to “foster teamwork and technical skills for students who are interested in pursuing an auto-related career after high school.”

According to Top Wrench President Kenny Boatman, the organization was founded in 1991 by Air Force veteran Joe Marshall. Marshall was directed by the National Guard to try to fight the drug problem in East Tennessee.

“Joe saw how drugs decimated young people,” said Boatman. “He wanted to give them something to do to keep them busy to try to keep them out of drugs.” The result was Top Wrench.

“The main goal is to get them a job,” Boatman said. “We go into the schools, develop programs and train them for what they’re executing here today … the kind of thing they need (for an automotive career).”

Students at the competition compete in six categories:

– Engine Start, in which competitors work to fix a “bugged” engine

– Computer Control, using scanners to diagnose an engine problem

– Pit Crew Challenge, a timed, NASCAR-style wheel-changing competition

– Welding Fabrication, a judged contest featuring pre-made pieces that demonstrate welding skills

– Custom Paint, a judged contest featuring pre-made pieces that demonstrate paint skills

– Valve Cover Race, a soapbox-derby style race using modified engine valve covers.

Funding for Top Wrench comes from local governments and sponsoring businesses, Boatman said. In addition to prize money going to the top three schools, Top Wrench helps provide student scholarships, as well as grants to high-school vocational programs to buy supplies and materials.

Top Wrench also helps connect students with local businesses for career experience and opportunities.

Boatman had strong praise for Crown College. “Crown has fantastic welding, auto diesel, and HVAC programs,” he said. “It’s a jewel inside Knox County most don’t know about. Two of its graduates work for me.”

Blake Jones is a junior at Heritage High School. His plan is to possibly own an automotive repair shop one day.

“I’ve been interested (in cars) since I was real young and my Dad had a bunch of ‘em and we’d always work on them in his shop,” Jones said.

Vendors and booths lined the expo-like hall. One was from the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, manned by two deputies and Wes Norris, Assistant Chief Deputy.

“To have this event open to all the kids in Knox County … this is stuff that I didn’t have as a kid,” said Norris. “You could walk out of this facility today and graduate in 30 days and walk out with a career.”

KCSO has some 95 openings for corrections and deputies. “We start at $40,000 a year in corrections,” Norris said. “The sheriff is working on bumping that up 30%.

“Some of these kids want to go military,” Norris went on. “And we would never try to dissuade anybody from that. But law enforcement is a viable option if you don’t choose to go that route.”

According to Norris, a recruit must have graduated from high school, and pass both physical and psychological screenings and a drug test. He’s working on streamlining the process to get recruits ready for the job sooner.

The successful recruit for corrections can start training within five or so weeks of applying, Norris said. Some four months after that the job can start.

“We need honest, high integrity kids to come through; that’s what we’re getting in these events,” Norris said.

“These kids are vocational-minded. They’re looking for a career. KCSO has that to offer.”