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January 4 2019

Antoinette Jackson

by Charlotte Hays

When Antoinette Jackson, whose parents operated a towing company on Long Island, was growing, she fell in love with auto mechanics. 

Crawling under cars and trucks and tinkering with their engines--Antoinette instinctively knew it was what she was cut out to do. She truly had a vocation.

But first the Conventional Wisdom  intervened with an important message:  A degree from a four-year college is essential for success in America today, Ms. CW insisted.   

Hearing no counterbalancing arguments, Antoinette, now 31, automatically signed up for a four year degree in business administration and finance at the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University.

"I did learn a lot, but did I learn $70,000 worth of information?  I don’t feel that I did," admits Antoinette. That was roughly what she owed upon graduation.

Antoinette graduated in 2009 and has just about paid off her college debt. Doing so took discipline and sacrifice.

"The stigma around trade schools goes deeper than you could imagine," she says. "It is burned into you in school, beginning very early. If I had known when I got out of high school what I know now, I would have made different choices. I was tossed into making decisions without a lifeline."

While paying off her college loans, Antoinette was doing what she loved: working at her family's towing and auto repair business. The family business faced a personnel problem when the Master Technician left for another job. After a nearly two-year search for a replacement, Antoinette and her parents realized just how hard it is to find skilled employees. They hit upon a solution: Antoinette could go back to school and acquire the skills of a Master Technician.

"When I wasn’t able to find someone who had that ability to do more than just part-changing, I decided to go back to school and learn it myself, so I could be the one who diagnoses the cars and then I can tell the guys what they need to do," she recalls.

Antoinette's second experience with college was very different from her first. In May, Antoinette graduated from the Suffolk Community College with an associate's degree in automotive technology, the field she really loved. And that wasn't all. This time she graduated debt free.

"Suffolk is a community college, so it's very cost-effective," she tells IWF. "We call Suffolk (Suffolk’s Automotive program) one of Long Island's best kept secrets because not many people know about it, and yet it is an amazing program. Before I enrolled, I satdown with them and saw how classes were run because I am a mom of two and I'm running a business. They were able to fit me into their general program, and I was able to fit the necessary classes into my schedule, which was helpful. It was a cost-effective way for me to acquire skills." Just for the record, the Master Technician whose moving on to another job triggered all this is Antoinette's husband, Brad Jackson. He felt that, since jobs in family businesses don't always come with pensions, he needed to secure the family's future by landing a position with the state of New York, which does have a pension and other benefits. It was his praise of the programs at Suffolk that led Antoinette to pick the school.

"What I liked most about my classes is that I would learn something and then bring it back to work and apply it," she says. "When I was learning about brakes, we were having an issue with a car at our shop. I was able to learn how to fix it in class and go straight into the shop and apply my new skill, which was really nice. Everything I learned in class, I backed it up working on a vehicle. I was able to get it on both sides."

"When I wasn’t able to find someone who had that ability to do more than just part-changing, I decided to go back to school and learn it myself, so I could be the one who diagnoses the cars and then I can tell the guys what they need to do," she recalls.

Suffolk, Antoinette notes, partners with industry leaders to offer courses preparing students to work on specific cars. They alternate classes and hands-on experience. Antoinette says that Suffolk (Suffolk’s Automotive program) has a good track record of placing graduates in the industry. She remained with her family business and helped set up a second towing and repairs outlet. “At  Suffolk, all of my professors were active mechanics, had worked many years in facilities, or were working with dealerships and also teaching.  They had a hands-on way of teaching, because they know what’s going on, and what we will need to do," she says.

In addition to the lower tuition costs, Antoinette was able to get several scholarships available to those who are learning technical skills, including a Women in Auto Care scholarship, sponsored by the automobile repair industry, and another scholarship from Auto Value and Bumper to Bumper, parts and warehouse businesses. Antoinette is also the proud recipient of a scholarship from Mike Rowe, the famous promoter of "dirty jobs." She was awarded a  mikeroweWORKS Work Ethic Scholarship in 2016. It required signing Mr. Rowe's S.W.E.A.T. (Skills and Work Ethic Aren't Taboo) Pledge, at which some would-be Rowe scholars have balked.   

The Rowe credo features such items as, "I believe there is no such thing as a 'bad' job. I believe that all jobs are opportunities and it is up to me to make the best of them."  Or, "I do not 'follow my passion.' I bring it with me. I believe any job can be done with passion and enthusiasm." When a mother of a potential scholarship recipient informed Rowe that she was "appalled" by the pledge, Rowe was unfazed. He replied, "If it’s any consolation, you’re not the only one to object to my S.W.E.A.T Pledge, or do so with an over-reliance on exclamation points!! Over the years, it’s been my sad duty to inform lots of angry parents that this particular pile of free money might not be for them, or for their children."

Antoinette had no such reservations about that S.W.E.A.T. Pledge. "Everything on that pledge is part of the work ethic," she says. "It’s part of working hard, and respecting your boss and your position, and respecting yourself.  I don’t see anything wrong with anything on the pledge.  I wish more people would follow it."

In explaining why Antoinette deserved one of his scholarships, Rowe commented on Facebook: "Antoinette went on towing calls, performed oil-changes, and did anything else that needed doing to keep the doors open, including cleaning the restrooms. Hey, it’s a dirty job, but somebody’s gotta do it! " Antoinette says that she was a "big fan" of Mike Rowe even before she got the scholarship, and the admiration is obviously mutual. Rowe praised Antoinette for making it her mission to inform the public about alternatives to the four-year degree, which is all too often regarded as the sine qua non of success in America.

"The stigma around trade schools goes deeper than you could imagine," she says. "It is burned into you in school, beginning very early. If I had known when I got out of high school what I know now, I would have made different choices. I was tossed into making decisions without a lifeline."

"Suffolk is a community college, so it's very cost-effective," she tells IWF. "We call Suffolk (Suffolk’s Automotive program) one of Long Island's best kept secrets, and yet it is an amazing program. I sat down with them and saw how classes were run because I am a mom of two and I'm running a business."

The four-year degree path is the right choice for millions of Americans. But Antoinette doesn't believe it was for her. There was for example, that oceanography class. Or the class in cinema. Or those two sculpting classes. Valuable and enlightening to many but Antoinette has her doubts about how these classes fit into her life. "It’s kind of like I don’t feel like my oceanography class really helped me in my field of study," she says.  "I mean I am crafty so I had fun in the sculpting classes, but do I feel that they taught me anything that would help me or benefit me in the work field?  No."

What about her kids' educational futures? " I will not force my children into a four-year degree," she says. "I will, depending on their individual strengths and weaknesses as they grow, guide them to a career path, college, technical school or workforce but ultimately their future will be in their hands. As long as my children are doing a job to the fullest, able to support themselves and come home from work with a feeling of self worth and accomplishment I will be proud." 

Antoinette isn't the only one who thinks trade training gets short shrift today. In a new and currently much talked-about new book entitled The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America, Oren Cass argues that, while we lavish federal financial assistance on the academic student, we devalue the non-academic path. With tax breaks, loan subsidies and state-level funding, the federal outlay for academic students is around $150 billion annually. For the non-academic student, it is around $1 billion. This might be a blessing in disguise, given how federal loan programs and other assistance has caused college tuition to skyrocket to unmanageable heights. But it does show a lot about what society values. Maybe it is time to praise trade schools for helping Americans prepare for the kind of work that makes our society function and gives lives dignity.

"This country was built by hard-working men and women," Antoinette says, "and without people like these men and women to keep up that tradition, our foundations will crumble and there won't be anybody to build it back again."

"We need more research on where employees are needed," Antoinette says. And some of those areas are ones like Antoinette's. "We need to say to kids, you can get a job as a teacher, but right now that industry is flooded. So, where are the jobs? Whether it's mechanics, and welders, or whatever, teach kids in high school that these are the jobs that are open, these are the places where you're most likely to find a job, and these are the areas in which you won't find work. When I was going to school almost all my friends went to get jobs as teachers, because here on Long Island teachers make a lot of money. Most of them are out of work now.”

"This country was built by hard-working men and women," Antoinette says, "and without people like these men and women to keep up that tradition, our foundations will crumble and there won't be anybody to build it back again."

With more people like Antoinette Jackson, who knows the dignity that comes with doing dirty jobs, the country will be in good--albeit sometimes greasy--hands.





Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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