Jackson Sentell, 18, is the youngest store manager in the Autobell Car Wash chain. There’s an emerging trend for teens to skip college and go right to work or technical school or just keep working at the job they’ve had, but even more diligently, once they graduate. Sentell has been awarded his own Autobell car wash in Lawrenceville. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

More students choosing path to career over college

As many recent high school graduates use the summer to get ready for college about a third of their classmates are headed straight to work. The most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that of the 2.9 million youth age 16 to 24 who graduated from high school between January and October 2017, about 1.9 million (66.7 percent) were enrolled in college in October.

What those numbers don’t reveal is that not everyone who doesn’t go to college is destined for a life of minimum-wage jobs. A growing trend shows many young adults who don’t pursue ivy-covered halls are still career focused.

Jackson Sentell wanted to have a job as soon as he was old enough. On his 14th birthday, he applied for a bagger position at the Publix near his dad’s home in Alpharetta. Since it was his neighborhood store, the managers knew him and gave him a chance.

In about two years, he moved to cashier and had his eye on customer service when friends told him about a nearby car wash that was hiring. Even though it was outdoor work and required more physical labor, the tips and commissions were incentive enough for him to give it a shot.

“They didn’t hire me right away,” said Sentell. “I went in about every week and bugged them until I got the job.”

In March 2017, he joined Autobell as a crew member.

The Charlotte-based company is family-owned and has eight locations in metro Atlanta. It has a policy of hiring staff from nearby neighborhoods and promoting from within. Everyone in the company has washed cars at some point in their career.

Taking the lessons he learned at Publix and honing them for the new job, Sentell quickly rose up the ranks. Last month he was named manager of the Lawrenceville store, which, at 18, made him the youngest manager in the company. As the top position at that location, he oversees a staff of 13 and does all the duties any other boss would — ordering supplies, handling payroll, hiring, training and firing.

His day usually begins at 6:15 a.m. before the shop opens and doesn’t end most days until the last car is wiped dry and the equipment is turned off — around 8 p.m.

“It’s a lot of work but I like to focus on what I have a passion for and make a living doing that.”

That sharp focus is what drove him to leave his brick-and-mortar school, Lambert High School, this past school year and enroll in online classes. He was able to work at his own pace and completed his senior year in one semester — with all As.

“I didn’t want to spend time in a classroom when I didn’t feel I was learning anything that would help with my future,” he said.

With the blessing of his father Todd Sentell, a former career-tech teacher at a Fulton County private school, and his grandfather Jack Sentell, a retired executive with Chick-fil-A, the young man turned most of his attention to furthering his career.

“Jackson’s story isn’t unique to Autobell,” said Beau Watson, district manager for the metro Atlanta stores. “I started out just like him, washing cars and moving up the ladder.” Watson was district manager by the time he turned 30.

“It’s a good career,” he said. “Jackson is already making more money than his friends and, when they graduate with a mountain of student loan debt, he won’t have any of that.”

A study released earlier this year by the Brookings Institution showed that of the 10 million young adults in the workforce, not all opportunities are equal.

Career advancement prospects are limited for workers with low levels of education, and the data are not promising on this front: only one in five of the working/not-in-school group has an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. The largest share of the working/not-in-school group (nearly half, or 42 percent) has only a high school diploma; another 10 percent has less than a high school education. That is, 5.3 million 18-24 year-olds—17 percent of all young adults—are done with school, at least for now, and are participating in the work world armed with no more than a high school diploma.

The study suggested that high schools:

Georgia has a strong career pathway program. As early as the sixth grade, students are tested on areas of interest and aptitude.

“Our goal is to get students on the right path, whether it’s college or straight to work,” said Jody Reeves, director of Gwinnett County Schools Academies and Career and Technical Education department.

At a recent school board meeting, she presented the progress the program is making in matching students with careers. This year Gwinnett had 4,601 students in automotive, culinary arts, computer science, engineering, health sciences and construction who passed assessments and credentialing to be college and career ready.

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