PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – A Canby-based automotive technical school that operates as a nonprofit is providing students a free education and paying them while they go to school.
“We’re paying people to teach them. That’s not very orthodox,” said Auto-Tek Workforce Development’s director of operations Dustin Paulson.
The nonprofit recently relocated from north of Gladstone to Canby and says the new location should allow them to educate more students and make a bigger impact on the community.
The nonprofit not only strives to provide quality, affordable education, but also offers its refurbished vehicles to community members in need at a low cost.
Paulson said oftentimes his students come into the program needing help and through their automotive repair work, they end up helping others.
“Our intention is to provide this to the underserved. And that could mean somebody that got in trouble right out of high school. That could mean a foster kid who didn’t have any direction and now they’re 20 years old and living in a car because they don’t know what else to do,” Paulson explained.
The school first opened as Bob’s Auto Cafe in Tualatin in 2015 before moving to the Oak Grove area and then to Canby in 2022. Paulson joined the program a couple years after it started and said it was a great opportunity for him to put his military leadership, 15 years of auto work experience and passion for coaching to good use.
At its previous locations, Auto-Tek could teach about eight students at a time. It would accept two new students about every four months and students would finish the program in 18 months.
Now, in Canby, Paulson expects they’ll be able to train 10 to 12 students at a time.
Auto-Tek not only covers the cost of each student’s education, but also pays them $15 an hour for 40 hours a week while they attend school.
“We’re self-funded, and so that’s a pretty big payroll. That’s a lot of donated cars and a lot of public service, but with the space, and I think being in Canby now, we’ve gotten a lot of support already,” Paulson said.
Paulson said he grew up poor and knows what it’s like to not have a lot of options when it comes to higher education. He also knows what it’s like to not know how to manage finances, which is why every student in the program is required to go through a 32-week life skills training portion of the program.
“Some of those life skills are going to be basic first aid, industry safety, OSHA, SAIF, we’re going to also take them through some finance classes, how to set up and build a budget, how to pay your taxes,” Paulson said.
They also teach students about mental health and constructive, safe forms of recreation.
Students spend about 2 hours a day in the classroom, but the rest of the time is spent in the shop where they work on cars that have been donated to Auto-Tek by members of the public, or cars that need repairs.
Since every car comes in with different problems, Paulson said it’s a great way for students to experience a wide variety of repairs. They’ll do everything from replacing carpets and windshields to repairing engines and clutches. It could be anything under the sun.
“And that’s the goal, right? It really is to saturate them with as much automotive repair as possible, so that when they go out there, while they haven’t seen everything, we promise they’ve seen tenfold what a Community College student has seen,” Paulson said.
With ongoing labor shortage and the cost of parts, Paulson said the price of automotive repairs has risen sharply in recent years. Auto-Tek also serves as a shop that will perform vehicle work at a lower price than other automotive shops.
In addition to training students, and providing low-cost automotive work, the third part of Auto-Tek’s mission is serving the community.
Paulson calls it the nonprofit’s “benevolent arm” and said Auto-Tek has established relationships with resource agencies in the community. When people go to those agencies and need vehicle repairs the agencies turn to Auto-Tek to see if the shop can help them.
The nonprofit dedicates about 11% of its revenue a month to donated, free car care. When the shop was located in Tualatin, Paulson said this amounted to about $3,000 a month.
“The thing that made it cool was basically at the end of the work, the customer comes in to get their car and then we allow them to give the thank yous to our students,” Paulson said.
It shows the students how the program comes full circle. Students are being given help to receive an education so that they in turn can help others in the community.
Paulson served in the military before and after 9/11. When he returned from the war, he struggled with post traumatic stress disorder and was an alcoholic for more than 4 years. He credits the people around him and his faith for helping him transform his life.
Now he enjoys giving back what others gave him.
“The incentive to keep going, really, is watching people’s lives change,” he said of the Auto-Tek program. “It’s kind of what feeds me, what fuels me, kind of what the Lord has called me to do.”
He said not every day is a good day at Auto-Tek. Students will struggle and occasionally drop out, funds will be tight or they’ll be short on donated cars, but he said the good days far outweigh all of the bad days.
Now that they’re in their new Canby location, Paulson said Auto-Tek is hoping to expand in the coming years. He said the Canby shop has good potential to serve as the headquarters and would like to open another shop or two in either Gresham or Hillsboro.
Auto-Tek could always use financial support or donated vehicles. Cars or trucks donated to the program are tax deductible. The program has more information on how to donate on its website.
Paulson said another way people can help is to bring their vehicles to the shop and hire the students for repairs. The shop is located at 24434 S Hwy 99 in Canby.
Anyone interested in Auto-Tek Workforce Development training should contact the nonprofit. Paulson said there is an application process that must be completed by potential students.