Public Info

New Jersey High School Automotive Technology Teacher wins 2020 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence

Michael Shephard and Union County VO-TECH Share $50,000 Award

Contact: David Connerty-Marin

SCOTCH PLAINS, N.J.—An automotive technology teacher from Scotch Plains has been named a winner of the 2020 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence, receiving $50,000 as part of $1 million awarded to 18 trades teachers nationwide today.

Michael Shephard, who teaches automotive technology at Union County Career and Technical Institute in Scotch Plains, will receive $50,000—including $35,000 for the school’s skilled trades program and $15,000 for him personally. He joins 14 other Prize winners, who each received $50,000, and three Grand Prize winners, who each received $100,000 as part of the annual prize.

“This year has been one of the toughest on record for skilled trades teachers as they switch between in-person, remote or blended learning—all while trying to do their life’s work of preparing the next generation of tradespeople,” said Danny Corwin, executive director of Harbor Freight Tools for Schools. “At a time when tradespeople are more essential than ever, so is trades education. We are honored and grateful to have the chance to shine a spotlight on these teachers’ amazing work.”

Union County Vocational-Technical Schools Superintendent Gwendolyn Ryan said:  “Mr. Shephard brings valuable industry experience, great enthusiasm for Career and Technical Education, and a love of learning to the Automotive Technology students at the Union County Career and Technical Institute,” said .  We rely on industry partners to provide meaningful support of our programs.  We are grateful both for Harbor Freight Tools for Schools’ partnership and for recognizing Mr. Shephard for the commitment he has made to our students.  We could not be more proud of his initiative, his creativity and of this accomplishment!” 

Union County Freeholder Chairman Alexander Mirabella said: “We congratulate Mr. Shephard for receiving this award and we thank Harbor Freight Tools for Schools for their partnership. We also thank Mr. Shephard for his commitment to his students and excellence in vocational education. Now more than ever, we must continue to develop the skills of our students who wish to work in vocational fields and deliver essential services.”

The Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence was started in 2017 by Eric Smidt, the founder of national tool retailer Harbor Freight Tools, to recognize outstanding instruction in the skilled trades in U.S. public high schools and the teachers who inspire students to learn skills to prepare for life after graduation. As recent research from JFF (formerly known as Jobs for the Future) and funded by Harbor Freight Tools for Schools found, students who “concentrate” (or take multiple trades courses as part of a program) are more likely to graduate than their peers. Upon graduation, students are prepared for either further education or work in fields that routinely rank among the hardest jobs to fill and that have come to be widely recognized as “essential” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Trades teachers are educating and developing the tradespeople of the future,” Smidt said.  “Many of the students in their classes today will become—as soon as next spring—the workers who keep our critical care infrastructure, our communication networks, our homes and cars up and running. The prize is our way of saying thank you to their teachers.”

Michael Shephard teaches automotive technology at Union County Career and Technical Institute in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. He has taught at UCCTI for four years. Shephard’s students learn how to rebuild engines by running diagnostics and performing repairs. During his time teaching, Shephard has expanded his program to include a third year, during which students fix customer cars. In the shop, Shephard teaches students according to their learning styles, using the Visual, Auditory, Read/Write, Kinesthetic (VARK) method. Upon completion of his program, 90 percent of Shephard’s students earn an Automotive Service Excellence certificate.

For a list of all 18 winners and finalists, click here.

Grand Prize winners will each receive $100,000, with $70,000 going to their public high school skilled trades program and $30,000 to the individual skilled trades teacher behind the winning program. The 15 Prize winners will each be awarded $50,000, with $35,000 going to their public high school program and $15,000 to the teacher. Because of school, district and/or state policy regarding individual cash awards, the schools of two teachers will receive the entire prize winnings. Cash awards given to schools will support winning teachers’ skilled trades programs. Individual winnings can be used however the winner wishes.

The 2020 prize drew more than 600 applications from 48 states and included three rounds of judging, each by an independent panel of experts from industry, education, trades, philanthropy and civic leadership. The application process, which included responses to questions and a series of learning modules, was designed to solicit each teacher’s experience, insights and creative ideas about their approach to teaching and success in helping their students achieve excellence in the skilled trades. All learning modules are available here.

In July, the field was narrowed to 50 finalists. The 32 finalists who were not named winners today will receive $1,000 gift cards from Harbor Freight Tools. Additionally, given the challenges teachers are facing due to COVID-19, teachers who applied for the prize but did not advance to become finalists were eligible to receive $100 gift cards from Harbor Freight Tools.

About Harbor Freight Tools for Schools

Harbor Freight Tools for Schools is a program of The Smidt Foundation, established by Harbor Freight Tools founder Eric Smidt, to advance excellent skilled trades education in public high schools across America. With a deep respect for the dignity of these fields and for the intelligence and creativity of people who work with their hands, Harbor Freight Tools for Schools aims to drive a greater understanding of and investment in skilled trades education, believing that access to quality skilled trades education gives high school students pathways to graduation, opportunity, good jobs and a workforce our country needs. Harbor Freight Tools is a major supporter of the Harbor Freight Tools for Schools program. For more information, visit us at and Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter.