Jessica Rager was raised in Central City, Pa., a small borough of about 1,500 outside of Johnstown.
From Harrisburg, it’s about a three-hour drive, but if people are still unsure of its exact location, Rager helps by giving a post 9/11 reference point.
“You know where Flight 93 came down? Yeah, I’m about 10 minutes from that,” she said.
It’s a rural, mountainous area. Rager spent most of her childhood outside on two wheels, thanks to her father.
“Most kids get kites and fly kites around,” she said. “My dad got us dirt bikes.”
If the bike broke down, she had to fix it or she didn’t get to ride. After her first couple attempts at repairs, Rager realized that she enjoyed fixing the bike, maybe even more than riding it.
“To me it was more than ‘I got to fix that today.’ It was like ‘I love working on it’ and I wanted to learn more.”
The repair work evolved into restoration. She and her brother traded away their first bike for another. In four months they dismantled the bike, cleaned and repaired its parts, and reassembled it, restoring it to a like-new condition. They sold if for a profit and bought a higher-end bike.
They ended up trading their way from a 1993 bike into a 2008 bike, she said.
Fast forward about nine years. Rager never lost her passion for motorcycles. She is now enrolled at YTI Career Institute’s Motorcycle Technology Center, located in a Manchester Township business park off Interstate 83 in York County. A scholarship winner, she will graduate in April and move one step closer to a job she loves and the independence that comes with it.
YTI’s motorcycle technology program is specifically geared toward students like Rager who have opted for an alternative to the traditional four-year college route. She has zero desire to sit in a classroom.
Most motorcycle technician students and workers are still predominantly male, but the staff at MTC has noticed a slight uptick in women students interested in the field. Rager is a standout in the overall class.
“It is on the increase and the quality of the female student is really – I hate to say it – but sometimes it’s a better quality than our male students because they have to work so much harder in this industry,” said Angie Jones, MTC’s admissions coordinator.
Still, it’s a slight uptick in female enrollment, said Judd Hill, the associate program director. Four women are students at the center now.
But there is room for more. Each class – a new one starts each quarter – can hold 18 students. Rager’s class has less than 10.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for motorcycle mechanics was predicted to grow at a slower-than-average rate of six percent between 2014 and 2024, however because of the increase in registered motorcycles, there’s a need for mechanics.
Hill said they frequently get calls from local employers asking about students.
The MTC classes also impart skills in motorcycle sales, parts counter technician, dealership technician and helping students on the path to shop ownership.
Combine passion and work for a ‘perfect career’
“There is a huge skills gap in this country and college is not for everybody,” Jones said. “But education is for everybody. Once you decide what you are good at and what you like to do, if you can marry those things together, you have the makings of a perfect career.”
For students who started classes between March 2014 and Feb. 2015, the national graduation rate falls at 65 percent. Of that rate, 68 percent find jobs upon graduation, according to Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges. The median salary for a motorcycle mechanic is $32,000 according to Salary.com.
The motorcycle course isn’t easy and the difficulty only escalates for older students, most of whom are enrolled in the evening classes. Full-time jobs, families and other financial obligations make it hard to adjust to the 6-hour classes each day.
“To really get the most out of it, it should be done when you are still a kid. Before you are married, before you have a house, before you have all of these obligations,” Jones said. “Trying to make those skill changes at 40, 45 and 50 is difficult … it never gets easier. It gets harder.”
The classes are held five days a week in a 9-month program, which is split in three, three-month terms. A new group of students – ranging in age from 18 to nearly 70 – starts every three months. Full tuition is $21,100.
The program is the only one of its kind in Pennsylvania and in the Mid-Atlantic region as a whole. Similar schools are located in Arizona, Florida and Ohio.
“I have someone here from Tennessee, someone here from Indiana,” Jones said.
Jess will be lifelong
Rager worked with Jones for more than a year before finally being able to enroll.
“It was financially difficult for her to get here,” Jones said. “She worked at a gas station and (pet store) to save money. She kept in touch with us on a regular basis. When she walked through the door in July she had a huge smile on her face and I knew this is where she was supposed to be. She was ready.”
Rager was also given some financial help from a midstate women’s riding club, Divas Elite Social Riding Club. The club gave Rager and three other female students $500 scholarships each, said Jen Shade, the riding club’s founder. The club is based out of Harrisburg.
“It’s a super stellar program right here in Central Pennsylvania. and I don’t think people realize how good it is,” Shade said. “In 9 months … they really leave with all the skills they need to have a career. That got us excited.”
Rager’s days are at capacity.
When she isn’t in class, she works at a local Petco in York County. “I put in my time here, leave and then clock in there. Then I sleep a little bit, eat a little bit in between, and do it all over again.”
She also has a tiny obsession with fish.
“I have three different aquariums. I have a crazy amount of fish,” she said.
Thus, the Petco job comes in handy.
“The discount on the fish is undeniable.”
After graduation, she’ll be heading back to Central City, hopefully getting into a shop and building up her skills. Rager hopes to branch out with her own shop in about five years; she’ll be in her mid-twenties by then.
“I don’t want to sell new motorcycles. I want to be able to repair motorcycles from people I know, people I don’t,” she said.
Her instructor at MTC, Judith Winters, sees Rager succeeding in her field.
“You can tell when you do this long enough who’s motivated and who will truly go into the industry,” Winters said. She’s been teaching at MTC off and on for 8 years. “And not just go into it, but stay. It’s a hard industry to be in, a hard industry to survive. Jess will be lifelong.”