(Em)powering students: Training future recreational vehicle mechanics

More than a dozen northern Michigan students start their school day at Pellston High School figuring out the intricacies of snowmobiles, jet skis, motorcycles and quads.

In what may be their favorite class of the day, PowerSports Technology is among the rural district’s vibrant technical education offerings, courses aimed at helping students pick up life skills, earn scholarships and land jobs after graduation.

Since it was first introduced in the fall of 2021, the PowerSports Technology  program has grown from eight students in its first year to 14 this year. Students may remain in the program for two years. 

Pellston’s PowerSports Technology class is modeled after similar programs in the Wexford-Missaukee Intermediate School District and the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District.

How it began: When Stephen Seelye came to the Pellston Public Schools as the district’s superintendent four years ago, a strong Career and Technical Education (CTE) program was in place. Seelye and the school board made it a priority to expand tech offerings. The PowerSports program was created with help from Jim Rummer, director of the Charlevoix Emmett County’s Intermediate School District CTE. Assistance also came from Dave Mackey, instructor at Wexford-Missaukee ISD. “He has assisted our instructors and personally made multiple trips north with supply donations for our program,” Seelye says. “We also have students from districts outside of Pellston attending this new program.”

Why Powersports: Boat and recreational vehicle mechanics are in high demand, says Hannah Sanderson, CTE Consultant for the Charlevoix-Emmet Intermediate School District. “When we are starting a new CTE program with the Michigan Department of Education and the Office of Career & Technical Education, we need to share how these will be high skill, high wage, and high demand jobs,” she says.

The PowerSports Technology program offers sound career preparation based on state and national assessment of the industry and its future needs.
Consider these figures:

— Michigan’s Outdoor Recreation industry contributed $10.1 billion to the state economy in 2019, supporting 123,569 jobs and $4.7 billion in compensation to employee households.
— Michigan ranks first in the nation in the concentration of commercial and industrial designers — over four times the national average— employing more than 4,000 in 2020.
— Nearly 6,000 of Michigan’s Outdoor Recreation jobs are in outdoor recreation-related manufacturing, such as boating, RV and gear manufacturing.
— There are more than 7,000 Outdoor Recreation Industry companies in Michigan, including manufacturing, service providers, retailers and wholesalers.
— Michigan ranks seventh in the U.S. for recreational vehicles and fifth for boating and fishing.

The impact: “First of all, our students love it; they are having the time of their lives learning to work on and repair side-by-sides, snowmobiles, motorcycles, chainsaws and all things powersports,” Seelye says. “The benefit for Pellston Public Schools has been incredible.” 

Local businesses have been supportive. 

Carquest Auto Parts helped kick off the program, selling the district $40,000 worth of tools at cost; Countywide Powersports of Petoskey provided two skilled technicians as teachers.

“I will forever be grateful to owners Brian Greene and Aaron Richards,” Seelye says. “They could have easily told our program no, but instead chose to support kids.”

Walstrom Marine is offering a $19,000 scholarship to a graduate from this program to attend the Great Lakes Boat Building School, Seelye says. 

“In the end, our duty is to provide opportunities to our students,” Seelye says. “I feel so proud that we will be graduating students that have an opportunity for careers with two strong local businesses upon graduation.” 

The building:  Housing the Powersports program took a fortuitous turn thanks, oddly, to the coronavirus pandemic. “Starting a new program during the pandemic brought with it even more than normal challenges,” Seelye says.  “At the time our Construction Trades program was unable to build a Habitat for Humanity structure; then Michigan Works offered us a grant at the perfect time and our students were able to be paid for work during the summer to construct our new building for the PowerSports Technology program.”

The new building also houses the school’s robotics team. The building is almost completed, awaiting delivery of siding and some finishing touches.

What people are saying: Pellston High School seniors Christopher Dankert and Garrett Cameron were among the construction trades students who helped with construction of the new building. Now, they are part of the PowerSports Technology class that meets there every school day. Dankert says he will use the skills he’s learning for the rest of his life. “Like, you're always going to have vehicles and I’ll always have toys to play with,” he says, so it will be necessary to know how to maintain and repair them."

“The kids who take powersports are really going to want to know how to work on small machines and engines,” Cameron agrees. He says he enjoys being able to work on his own vehicles during class time, too. “That’s a plus.”

Aaron Richards, co-owner of County Wide Powersports in Harbor Springs, says that as a small business owner in Northern MIchigan, he is well aware there is a serious need for help and a lack of experienced help in the industry. 

“We are very proud as a company to be able to supply the program with a couple of extremely competent and ambitious instructors,” Richards says. “Not only have the kids been able to receive a quality of instruction that only comes with experience, but it has also been fun to watch our technicians, the class instructors, grow in the process.”