The big hunk of metal in the garage that’s transportation for many, an investment for some and a baby for others is all of those things to Joseph “Joey” Barry, a Doherty High School senior.

But more important, “It’s a piece of art to me,” the 17-year-old says of the ’56 Chevy he’s rebuilding.

He’s now known nationally for his ability to create automotive masterpieces.

Barry brought home the first place title in the “automotive maintenance and light repair” category in the 2019 National Leadership and Skills Conference, or Skills USA, held last month in Louisville, Ky.

“It was mind-blowing,” he said. “I did not expect it. You’re there with the best of the best in the nation.”

And 19-year-old Ian Gregor, who graduated from Doherty High in May 2018 and this year competed in the college level, won first in “auto service technology.”

Both received gold medals.

“It’s a reflection of a great teacher doing great work with kids, and kids performing in an amazing capacity,” said Doherty Principal Kevin Gardner.

“These kids have the problem-solving and critical thinking we want our kids to graduate with,” he said. “It’s not the typical mindset people have of academic rigor, but the problems they solve are as real as they get.”

It was the 16th time for Doherty automotive tech students, in Colorado Springs School District 11, to qualify for the national contest, which drew 6,600 students testing their abilities in 200 skilled trades, ranging from culinary and cosmetology to bricklaying and aircraft mechanics.

But it’s the first time a Doherty competitor won an automotive title, said auto tech teacher Brad Wheaton.

“This is definitely going to raise the awareness of the program, which is trying to meet the demand for future jobs,” he said.

More than 200 ninth- through 12th-grade students get their hands dirty in auto tech classes each year, Wheaton said.

“I hope people start taking automotive classes and this trade seriously,” he said. “A lot of people think if you’re not good at academics, you can just go work on cars, and that’s far from the truth. You have to be smart.”

Automotive technology involves a lot of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) principles, Gregor said.

“I like how complicated cars are and the challenge it brings,” he said. “It’s just so satisfying working with something that’s that impressive.”

Automotive competitors at the Skills USA event perform hands-on tasks at a series of stations on every area of the vehicle as they work to identify, diagnose and repair problems.

In addition to receiving thousands of dollars worth of tools, winners get an “extreme amount of bragging rights,” said Gregor, who placed second last year at the competition.

It’s difficult to return to the nationals a second time, Wheaton said, as only first-place state winners advance to the nationwide stage.

Before graduating, Gregor secured a job as a mechanic at EuroStar Automobile in Motor City.

“I was able to slip right into the industry with the skills I learned in high school,” he said.

That’s the point, Gardner said.

“They have the certifications coming out of high school to get an entry-level position,” he said. “There’s such demand for certified technicians, Mr. Wheaton has really opened the door for kids to have incredible opportunities. So much of public schools you hear about college readiness, but workforce readiness is just as important.”

Barry and Gregor now are qualified to compete in the 2023 World Skills USA competition in Beijing, China. 

Wheaton said he always wishes students "good skills" instead of "good luck" before they compete.

"Luck doesn't get you far in what we do," he said. "You're often working on cars that are some people's biggest investment, besides their house."

Gregor said he fixed the engine mount on a $150,000 Mercedes at work Monday. 

"Luck doesn't fix the engine mount. It has to be skills," Wheaton said. 

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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