MAYHEW — Grady Graham pulled his first clutch, on a 1949 Ford, when he was 8 years old. Back then, on his family’s farm in Ethel, deconstructing tractors and work trucks wasn’t job training so much as daily life.
Since then and up to his retirement last month from East Mississippi Community College’s Automotive Services Technology program after 28 years on the job, Graham’s life has been the definition of on-the-job training. After completing automotive skills trade classes at Mississippi State University, he continued to spend six months out of each year taking classes while working as an auto technician at multiple car dealerships. Even after taking over the automotive program at EMCC, he still spent 20 hours a year in class to maintain his certification as a Master Technician through the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence.
The point is, when it comes to auto repair, there’s not much Grady Graham doesn’t know how to do or how to teach. But as an instructor and mentor to hundreds over the years, he taught himself a far more valuable skill: how to help students land a job.
Graham’s presence can be felt from service departments at major dealerships to owner-run shops all over the Golden Triangle. Shane Orrick, service manager at Starkville Ford and an EMCC alum himself, estimates 90 percent of his staff is made up of EMCC grads. In the service bay at Carl Hogan Chevrolet in Columbus, you can hardly spend five minutes talking to an EMCC grad half-buried under the hood of a new Camaro without another EMCC grad walking by on his way to the parts pick-up window.
“For years, whenever I go to a garage to get my car worked on, the first thing I say when I walk in is, ‘I work with Grady Graham,’” said Linda Gates, director of Job Placement and Work-Based Learning at EMCC.
Gates’ job is to help students find work in their field of study before and after graduation. She says automotive technicians are already in high demand, but coming from EMCC’s program with the recommendation of Graham and fellow automotive instructor Dale Henry is as close as EMCC can come to guaranteeing employment.
“They’re turning out great graduates,” says Orrick. “They know what they need to know to get started.”
That’s because Graham and Henry have been working in tandem to make EMCC the top automotive program in Mississippi since Henry came on board in 2007.