Ben Baker's summer doesn't include mornings of sleeping in or days of lounging on the couch playing video games or watching TV. The 17-year-old Howard High School rising senior is spending his summer as an apprentice grease monkey, working on Howard County police cars.
The 5-year-old county government program provides five high school VoTech students with a summer internship at the Office of Central Fleet, working alongside the county's mechanics.
The program was created "to give these kids a chance to see what it's like to work," said Doug Harold, the operations leader at Howard County Central Fleet.
Over the course of the summer, students are required to work a total of 80 hours.
Interns do basic car maintenance, like oil changes, tire changes, air conditioner repairs and replacing broken equipment from cars that are otherwise in good shape with parts from cars that aren't used anymore.
"It's a more specialized and very complex piece of machinery," said Mark Elliott, operations supervisor at Howard County Central Fleet, of the police cars on which Baker and the other interns work.
The other four student interns this summer are: Scott Hamilton, from Mount Hebron High; Jeff Morgan, from Reservoir High; Even Rivera, from Mount Hebron High; and, Brandon M. Workman, from Reservoir High.
During their first week, interns and mentors work side-by-side, Harold said. But gradually, they are allowed to perform on their own, as their mentors gain faith in their skills.
Baker was paired with a mentor Rick Mayer, a motor equipment mechanic, who observes everything his student does.
He mentors, Mayer said, because "it reminds me of when I was young."
"I watch to make sure he gets the feel of things," said Mayer, who offers reminders to Baker when he forgets a step in preventive maintenance checks, and helps keep Baker's work moving along.
Mayer said time and experience are the best teaching tools Baker has at his disposal. "He needs more hours getting greasy," Mayer said.
"It was hard the first couple of days waking up that early," said Baker, who gets to work at 6 a.m. five days a week and works until 2 or 2:30 p.m.
Baker hopes his internship experience will lead to a job as a certified mechanic at a dealership.
Baker said his friends ask him why he'd work for free. But to him, the experience of working on real cars is more valuable than a paycheck.
"It's free education," he said.