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This city program turned high schoolers into auto mechanics and changed their lives

As the City of Philadelphia develops new apprenticeships to tackle the city's poverty rate, a look at the its most successful job training program.

Otoniel "O.T." Figueroa inspects a car at South Philly garage he calls home. Figueroa, 39, started working for the city as a mechanic when he was in high school as part of what's become the city's longest running and most successful apprenticeship program.
Otoniel "O.T." Figueroa inspects a car at South Philly garage he calls home. Figueroa, 39, started working for the city as a mechanic when he was in high school as part of what's become the city's longest running and most successful apprenticeship program.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Otoniel Figueroa likes to say he did 10th grade for three years.

The first time, it was taking so long for him to get transferred to Edison High School from Olney that he just dropped out. The second time, after finally making it to Edison, he flunked. But on his third try, he got a reason to keep his grades up: the promise of a job.

That year, his auto body teacher had pulled him aside and told him he was good enough to join a new program where the city hired high schoolers to work on cop cars and fire trucks. But he’d have to get at least a C in every class, even gym, or he’d get fired.

The only class he liked was auto body. He loved working on cars, often staying at school late into the evening to fix them with his teacher. So, Figueroa, who goes by “O.T.,” jumped at the chance. By the time he graduated, in 1999, he had a full-time job at the city garage in South Philly. And he had made the honor roll.

At a time when the Kenney administration is developing a slate of on-the-job training programs in hopes of tackling poverty and building a pipeline for an aging city workforce, the Fleet Department’s Automotive Apprenticeship shines. The city’s longest-running workforce program, it took Philly high schoolers — mostly boys, many of them black and Latino — and gave them after-school jobs in city garages, where they apprenticed under experienced auto mechanics and got the chance to become full-time employees when they graduated. (The traditional pathway requires four years of experience, a college degree, or an industry certification to get a job as a city mechanic, which rules out a lot of Philly kids.)

In its 25 years, the program has served 125 students, a third of whom still work for the city. Many of them were the first in their family to buy a house and have health insurance, said Ann Cohen, a former union leader who helped start the program. Auto industry jobs are “the top of the blue-collar pay scale,” Cohen said — a city auto technician makes between $44,000 and $49,000, on top of a pension and job security. And several early apprentices have climbed the ranks to help run the city’s garages, now overseeing interns of their own.

There’s John Pfeifer, 40, a team lead at the biggest city garage, at Front Street and Hunting Park Avenue, who said the program was a “savior” for a guy like him, someone who knew he wasn’t going to college, who knew he wanted to work with his hands. “I was blue collar my whole life," he said. Lawrence Porterfield, a West Philly High graduate, says the job “took him off the street.” Also a team lead at Front and Hunting Park, he’s now the vice president of his union, a board member at the auto-focused Workshop School, and a new grandfather. And Figueroa, 39, the rowdy Puerto Rican kid from North Philly, manages a team of nine at 11th and Reed Streets, at the garage he grew up in, the one he calls home.

‘They didn’t want us’

The apprenticeship, born of a labor dispute, did not get off to an easy start.

It was the early ’90s, and the union representing mechanics had just won a $150,000 settlement against the city for giving union work to high schoolers. Cohen told the city that if it really wanted to give high schoolers auto work, she’d help set up a program.

But there was tension at all ends: Some of the unions worried that the apprenticeship would result in fewer spots for dues-paying members, so they told Fleet: Don’t send us any kids. It was also the first year the unions had accepted a contract with cuts to benefits and no wage increases, so they were bitter, Cohen said. Plus, most of the kids were black and brown, and much of the current staff was white.

“The rumor,” Figueroa said, laughing, “was that the shop at 11th and Reed was getting dark."

Still, the Fleet Department and some in labor, like Cohen, knew the program had potential. The city has always had a hard time recruiting for its blue-collar jobs because it can’t pay as much as the private sector. It helps to grow your own in the city garages because it’s such specialized work — your typical mechanic won’t know how to fix a faulty hose on a fire truck. And it was a way to make the city’s workforce reflect the racial makeup of the city itself.

So management made it clear, said Christine Derenick-Lopez, the former Fleet official who helped started the program: If you weren’t on board, you could get fired.

But it was hard at the garages at first: “They didn’t want us,” Porterfield said, talking about the mechanics when he was an intern. They didn’t want the interns touching their tools, which can cost thousands of dollars.

But over time, things changed. The interns started looking to the mechanics as father figures. One took Porterfield to open his first bank account. Eventually, as the interns got more experience, the mechanics would sit back and watch the kids do the work, happily letting them use their tools.

It took years to get it right, said Derenick-Lopez, who’s now the city’s chief administrative officer. For example, they realized that hiring a cohort of 23 interns was too many — you can’t have the kids all in one place because it’s too distracting. These days, Fleet hires about five interns each year. Though it would like to expand, there are limitations: Only a few garages are open for a second shift, necessary since students go to school during the day.

Now, the program is ingrained in the culture. Pfeifer says that of the 15 working under him, about one-third have come through the program. No one would complain about having to train a teenager. That’s just the way it is at Fleet.

Philadelphia Media Network is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at