EVERETT — Richie del Puerto started working on his 1973 Chevrolet Vega station wagon as a high school senior.
He didn’t realize he was training for his career. Before graduation, though, he had already landed a job at a shop in Lake Stevens.
“I kind of fell into it,” del Puerto said.
Now, del Puerto runs one of the most popular programs at Sno-Isle TECH Skills Center, a regional secondary school that helps high school students explore careers in the trades. It’s the same program that helped del Puerto launch his own career when he was a student at Snohomish High School.
The skills center near Paine Field in Everett is one of more than a dozen in Washington. It accepts students from 44 high schools and provides class credit through its programs. Some programs, including del Puerto’s, are so popular that the skills center uses a lottery system to pick students.
Del Puerto had been working in the industry for 13 years when his former teacher at Sno-Isle called him. The skills center wanted professionals to advise its programs. Before long, Sno-Isle TECH’s automotive technology program became so popular that the skills center wanted to expand it. Del Puerto was hired as a second instructor.
“I feel like I can make more of an impact here with students,” del Puerto said.
Sno-Isle TECH Director Wes Allen described del Puerto as calm and firm, and called him a great role model for the students.
“I can’t tell you how many people, in the four years I’ve been here, have said, … ‘He’s the reason for at least part of my success,’” Allen said.
Traevon Blocker, who graduated from high school in 2015, said he still reaches out to del Puerto before making big career decisions. Blocker opened his own shop, Blockers Auto Service and Detail, about two years ago in Lake Stevens.
“Richie will teach, if you want to learn,” Blocker said. “There really are no handouts with him. He’s pretty (tough) when it comes to work, but it pays off.”
Del Puerto has been an automotive technology instructor for 19 years. He said the transition from industry to education wasn’t difficult for him. He trained others in the shop and always enjoyed educating customers.
Del Puerto said the Sno-Isle program has changed since he started teaching. The technology in cars has become much more complicated — one of the reasons there are so many jobs available in the industry. Del Puerto said many technicians earn six-figure incomes.
This fall, equipment retailer Harbor Freight Tools selected del Puerto as a finalist for its national 2021 Prize for Teaching Excellence through the company’s Tools for Schools competition.
The skills center’s Automotive Technology program only teaches the fundamentals, del Puerto said.
He described it as a stepping stone for students to enter a post-secondary program. Some graduates find entry-level jobs and work their way up the industry, but del Puerto encourages students to pursue community college or technical schools. They offer robust curriculums that help students to advance their careers and earning potential.
“Those are the programs that really get the students prepared to work in a shop,” del Puerto said. “I’ve had students that have gone to industry and worked their way up, but I find that students are way more successful if they continue their education.”
Blocker, who took classes from del Puerto, went that route and graduated from Renton Technical College’s Ford Automotive Student Service Educational Training (ASSET) program. Del Puerto’s students can also earn about 25 industry-recognized certificates while studying at Sno-Isle TECH. It isn’t a requirement, but it helps them advance, del Puerto said.
“Students that are open-minded and willing to learn new things, and understand that they will never stop learning new things in this industry,” del Puerto said, “those are the ones that tend to be successful.”
Katie Hayes: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @misskatiehayes.
Katie Hayes is a Report for America corps member and writes about issues that affect the working class for The Daily Herald. Readers can support this work through a tax-deductible contribution to The Daily Herald’s Report for America fund.