Tom Varrone enjoys tinkering with cars.
Varrone, a north Phoenix resident, transferred his lifelong passion for fixing vehicles into his profession, and the classroom at Universal Technical Institute Phoenix campus, where he teaches students to fix BMW vehicles. When he won the North American Council of Automotive Teachers’ Educator of the Year award over the summer, colleagues and friends were not surprised.
Varrone, 48, remembered feeling elated about the honor, which was handed to him in Sanford, Fla., in July. He walked away with a $500 check, a certificate and a year’s subscription to Mitchell 1’s ondemand.com, which offers updated curriculum programs for aspiring car technicians.
"I am humbled to receive such a great honor for something that I am fortunate to do each day, which is helping to develop young people into respected professionals," he said. "It’s cool."
Varrone is the institute’s education supervisor for its BMW service-technician education program. The 24-week advanced class requires students to learn about electronic night vision, automatic cruise control or advanced climate control.
Not all students test into the program, which is fully paid for by the car company. Entry into the class requires high marks, attendance and good character.
Varrone said that the term "auto mechanic" is outdated, because it refers to automobiles, which used to have simple electrical systems such as the battery and headlights. Today, vehicles have about 88 computers in them.
This is why a technician is a better term, he said.
The institute also offers an elective program called BMW fast track. The 12-week introductory course focuses students on the basics about BMWs and includes learning about the auto’s electrical systems.
North American Council of Automotive Teachers, which has been around since 1974, advocates for automotive teachers and recognizes instructors in the profession. The council is run by automotive teachers and its foundation works with companies like Mitchell 1.
The value of the award varies, said Dan Perrin, the council’s executive manager. Schools like the institute can use the recognition to recruit more students or apply for grants.
The "recognition is always valuable in several ways, but from our organization’s perspective, the greatest value of recognition awards is in the confirmation that your work is of value and appreciated," Perrin said. "There is not enough of that in any kind of teaching job."
Varrone has been with Universal Technical Institute since 1995. Before he joined the institute’s faculty, he worked as a trainer for General Motors Corporation’s service technology group. He attended the Denver Institute of Technology, where he received a technician certificate in 1981.
Universal Technical Institute has 11 campuses across the country. This is the first time this type of award was given to a UTI teacher, said Tina Miller, the institute’s external communication’s director.
"That’s why it’s a big deal," Miller said. "Tom says, ‘I have to keep learning so my students benefit from what I’m learning.’ He is just one of those guys and he is so passionate about what he is doing."