For many people, their genealogy can give an interesting snapshot of long-dead relatives who bear little resemblance to today’s circumstances. For Carl Smith, a look back through the pages of history tells him that he was destined to be a leader in the automotive industry – or at least in the classroom.
“I guess that old saying ‘it’s in your blood,’ is true,” Smith says. “While tracing my roots, I found that one of my great-grandfathers, many times back on my mom’s side, actually built farm wagons in the 1500’s – that company is still producing farm equipment in Germany today.”
Smith, lead instructor of automotive and light duty diesel at Rowan Cabarrus Community College in Salisbury, North Carolina, says his research has revealed that a family history of blacksmithing and, more recently, automotive repair and racing has somehow been passed down to him. He now considers it an honor to continue sharing a passion for automotive knowledge down to a new generation.
“I remember stories my mom told about taking me to races when I was baby – all of that influenced my decision to take automotive classes in high school, where I found out that working on cars is what I wanted to do.”
Smith, who has been named the November finalist in B’laster’s “2021 Instructor of the Year” competition, says his first car – a 1976 Trans Am – and a poor job market combined to help him realize that he would need to repair his car’s problems himself.
“I came out of high school at a time when jobs were scarce, so I had to take a job in retail. I soon found myself purchasing tools with the hopes of landing a job in shop somewhere,” he says “After three years in retail, I finally found work in the automotive department of a major department store changing oil, busting tires, replacing shocks and all kinds of other minor repair that the shop offered. I spent about two years working there before I got my first job in an auto dealership as a mechanic’s helper. Getting some factory training, and doing all sorts of repairs laid the path for my future as an automotive technician.”
Smith says he quickly learned how important continual education is to this industry. “I remember the first time I took an ASE test at a local community college back in the 1980s, thinking this was the hardest test I had ever taken. I failed to pass that first test but tried again. Then as each test window opened, I found my taking more and more ASE tests, passing most and failing a few along the way until I earned my ASE Master Technician status. Those early failures made me more determined each time until I passed eight automotive tests.”
Eventually, Smith earned his ASE Master Certification, and also passed the X1, C1, F1, T2, T6, P2, G1 and A9 certification tests. I am currently in the process of renewing my expired certifications in L1, A2, T6, F1 and X1.
“After about 20 years of automotive repair, my body started telling me it was time to slow down a little,” Smith says. “One of our local colleges, Catawba College, introduced a new program called Life Long Learning for working adults to continue to work during the day, attend college 2 nights a week and one Saturday over a nine-week time frame, taking one course at a time for four years to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Management. This was a time when my son was becoming active in sports and scouting, which made things even more difficult, but after just over four years of college, and a lot of help and support from my wife and even my boss at work, I completed the program, earning my BBA.”
Smith says he looked for a new career for a few years but never found the perfect fit, when he saw a posting at the local Community College for an Automotive Program Chair. “I was given the opportunity to teach a night class, populated mainly with people who had just lost their livelihoods when a local textile mill closed down. These students were eager to learn a new skill and they really wanted to be there. I realized that I had gone about as far as I could go at the dealership and knowing I could make a difference in so many of these people’s lives, I decided that teaching was what I really wanted to do from then on.”
Smith didn’t get the Program Chair position he originally sought, but after one semester of teaching at night the college hired him to teach full-time.
“I believe everyone has the right to learn,” Smith says. I have taught experienced technicians as well as people who have never even seen the underside of a vehicle, and those students sometimes turn out to be really good technicians. To see students set and raise a vehicle on a lift for the first time is special- you can see confidence start to build in them as they learn to do something like that on their own.”
Smith believes in giving more competent students the opportunity to grow as team leaders, allowing them “teach” certain elements in the shop setting. “This also provides those experienced students an opportunity to hone important leadership and teamwork skills, helping the less-experienced students overcome challenges themselves.
Smith is no stranger to overcoming adversity in the classroom. “In January 2014, I was diagnosed with stage 4 tonsil cancer. My doctors immediately prepped me for surgery and within two weeks I had surgery and began treatments with both chemotherapy and radiation. The surgery went well with doctors removing my tonsil, a tumor the size just larger than a golf ball, and eleven lymph nodes. It was a really tough time for me as I didn’t want to miss any more time in the classroom than I had to.”
Smith credits the assistance of fellow instructors Melvin Rogers, Thomas Atwell, Nathan Snyder and Program Chair Wade Vernon covering his classes when he was unavailable to teach for making his recovery much easier to handle – though the physical and mental challenges were significant.
“That spring and summer semester was very hard on me physically and mentally, not knowing what the future had in store for me,” he recalls. “Eventually, thanks to my fellow instructors, my wife, Melinda, and a very good group of doctors who continue to be amazed at my progress and resilience, though I was still weak, struggling to speak and dealing to a tremendous case of dry mouth, I was back in front of students ready to continue teaching them. I stand here a better person knowing that I am a lucky person to have such wonder friends and family.”
Smith says the current situation with COVID-19 has proved to be a challenge as well. “When we left school for Spring Break last March, we didn’t know that it would be our last face-to-face meeting for quite some time. Having never taught any online classes we were forced to figure a way to teach automotive classes online. Teaching automotive classes in person can be challenging in itself, but to take a program that is taught mainly hands-on and try to figure ways to teach students through distance learning was truly frightening.”
Smith credits the many automotive companies that started offering ways for instructors to learn new techniques with helping him adapt to new ideas and ways of teaching, not only for today, but for the future as well. “These techniques I have learned over the past several months will help me do an even better job of teaching and will open new opportunities for future students to learn as well,” he says.
Though he says it’s a personal honor to be named as a B’laster Instructor of the Year finalist, he’s more grateful for the commitment the company has made to the industry as a whole. “I first learned of B’laster’s commitment to our industry several years ago at a SkillsUSA Conference and signed on as one of their early B’laster University schools. I cannot say enough about how supportive they are to us as educators, providing us with great training videos to help us teach our students about the importance of Safety Data Sheets, the differences between lubricants and penetrants and providing us with useful products to make some of lab projects work smoothly. B’laster is committed to helping all instructors with their continued support. This award is just another way to show how much they care about and support instructors.”
Name: Carl Smith
Hometown: Cooleemee, NC
Employer: Rowan Cabarrus Community College
Official Title: Lead Instructor Automotive Light Duty Diesel
Spouse: Melinda B. Smith, married in 1989
Children: Zachary and Kaitlyn
• Forbush High School, East Bend, NC, 1981
• Catawba College, Salisbury, NC, BBA, Business Administration, 2000
• Rowan Cabarrus Community College, Salisbury, NC, AAS in Automotive Service Technology, 2006
• Ford Senior Master Technician, 2002
• RCCC Outstanding Employee 2009
• IMACA (now MACS) EPA Section 609 Certified
• ALLDATA Specialist Certification
• SkillsUSA North Carolina Advisor of the Year, 2017
• NC3 Certified Trainer
• TIA Certified Trainer
• NC IGO as an Educator
• SkillsUSA Advisor at RCCC