MORRIS – Students in the Grundy Area Vocational Center’s automotive technology program learned firsthand Tuesday from Joe Zolper what it takes to become a top mechanic and to start a business.
Zolper owns Prison City Choppers and is lead mechanic on the TV show “Garage Squad” on the Velocity Network
“It was very interesting to me and the other students who want to go into automotive careers,” said Ethan Meier, a Morris Community High School senior. “He told us that if we have a chance to go to college to take it, and work hard.”
Zolper knows what it is like to be a student sitting in the seats of the automotive technology classroom at GAVC: He sat in one of those seats 20 years ago.
Zolper, who went to GAVC as a junior from Gardner-South Wilmington High School, said he wanted to share the brutal truth about what it’s like on the job, and to learn through the school of hard knocks.
“I tell kids to keep working, it doesn’t stop,” he said. “Experience is just as important as schooling in this field.”
Zolper didn’t go to college to earn a degree. Instead, he spent all his hours away from school or work, taking apart engines and learning the mechanics of how they work, teaching himself how to fix them.
At 17, he was working as a garbage man to pay rent and asking junkyards to let him have broken transmissions so he could take them apart and see if he could rebuild them.
“It’s taken me 20 years to get where I am,” he said in response to a student who asked him how long it took to get where he is today, both in business and on his TV show. “My senior year, I was riding on garbage trucks and working on head gaskets to pay the rent. It’s brutal when you don’t finish high school.”
Teacher Andy Kacena said it’s important to have a former student like Zolper talk to students about where they can go in life and what kind of work it takes to build a business in an ever-changing industry like automotive technology.
Kacena showed the students one of Zolper’s “Garage Squad” episodes Monday, so they could prepare for his visit Tuesday.
“Some of them went home and watched other episodes on their own. They’re interested in what he has to share,” Kacena said. “It’s important to have presenters who work in the field come in and talk to them about the options out there.”
Meier said he learned from Tuesday’s presentation that it’s hard work to get to where you want in the field, but it pays off when you are willing to do the work.
Zolper said students benefit from hearing the reality of the field.
“They have to work hard whether they go to school or go straight into the work force,” he said. “They also need to know that just because they don’t have the opportunities other kids have to go to a university, doesn’t mean they can’t succeed. I did.”
Zolper opened Prison City Choppers in 2001 in Joliet. Today, the business is in Minooka. His show “Garage Squad” started a year ago.