"Talking to you right now," says Daniel Lehmkuhl (pictured with Aneesh Chopra, chief technology officer of the United States). "I never thought this would happen."
When Lehmkuhl decided as a child that he wanted to go into automotive technology, he never expected to one day get the attention of the national media. But Lehmkuhl is now one of the best automotive technicians in the country, and next week will represent America at the 2011 WorldSkills Competition in London.
From the age 5, Lehmkuhl would go hang out at the local high school shop, where his dad was the industrial arts teacher. Over childhood summers, he and his dad would restore old cars.
"I developed a very technical mind," he says. "I always loved cars and taking things apart."
Lehmkuhl went through the automotive technology program at his high school, spending at least 30 hours a week in the shop. Now he works as a full-time mechanic. At age 22, Lehmkuhl has now racked up at least 12,500 hours fixing cars, a good chunk more than the 10,000 hours required to become an "expert" or "genius" in a field, according to Malcolm Gladwell.
"I like restoring race cars," says Lehmkuhl. "I like solving problems. I like a challenge. I like taking something and making it better than it was before."
Over three days, Lehmkuhl and his co-competitors will take part in six different modules. He'll be handling hand and electric tools, reassembling engines, and fixing any number of problems, like broken air conditioners, stuck power windows, short-circuited speakers, and jammed brakes. He'll have three hours to do whatever they throw at him, and inspections will measure his components to 1/1,000 of an inch.
No sweat. Lehmkuhl can handle a puzzle under pressure.
"I love looking at something and thinking: this is a system, this is how it's designed, and something's not working right," he explains.
Engine performance is his strongest category, but "the goal is to not have any station where you're the strongest," he says. "The goal is to feel strong in all of them."
Mechanics' Bad Rep
Listening to Lehmkuhl talk about his craft, one wonders why fewer young Americans are entering skilled trades like automotive technology. Despite dizzying unemployment numbers, companies are desperate for people like Lehmkuhl, and a good job is pretty much guaranteed after you've been trained. That's a good job without the hefty expense of a four-year college.
"I think that our culture has an image of more manual labor type trades and industries as inferior or subpar," Lehmkuhl speculates. "I understand that a guy with an engineering degree working for Boeing might be making 100 or 200 grand a year, while the mechanic is making 40, 50, 60. But someone's got to to do that job. The value of that industry and being good in that industry has been diminished."
Because there's less respect given to these trades, it attracts less quality people, he thinks. "Mechanics get a bad rep, because people may get a technician who isn't qualified, or is dishonest."
There's a kind of feedback loop that needs to be broken. "The more value you put on an industry," Lehmkuhl says simply, "the more value comes out."
Young people today, he believes, are steered away from skilled trades. "There's a lot of pressure to go to school, to get a four-year degree," he says. "But it's not for everyone. We shouldn't emphasize, so much, the education that puts you in a white collar job, but finding the best fit for each person. I don't think everyone's cut out for college."
Returning On An Investment
But Lehmkuhl proves that blue collar workers can have their share of respect and glory, if they work hard enough, and have the right support.
"Sure I'm blessed to have the opportunity to be here," he says, "but I'm the representative of so many people: my father, my family, my sponsors, everyone who's helped me get to this point."
Lehmkuhl hopes to make them all proud.
"It's a chance for me to return on their investment. Granted, they don't get much monetary value out of it. But it's a way for me to say thank you. It's bigger than just 'I get to go to this contest and compete against the best in the world.' "
But the chance to compete against the best in the world is a beautiful ending to a story that began as a 5-year-old in his dad's high school shop. "I can put a period at the end of the sentence," he says.
Lehmkuhl pauses for a moment, and seems to smile through the phone, as if realizing fully how amazing this all is, as if picturing that medal around his neck. "Or an exclamation point."
Watch: WorldSkills London 2011
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