The Piston Foundation: Giving Back to the Automotive Aftermarket

Supporting the development of the industry’s next generation of mechanics, installers & builders...

This article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue of THE SHOP magazine as part of the annual Giving Back section.

By Maura Keller

The Piston Foundation was launched in January 2021 by Robert Minnick, a lifelong car aficionado and retired entrepreneur. For years, Minnick had been hearing from friends in the collector car industry how difficult it was to find skilled technicians to hire, so he started looking at how the problem could be solved.

“It stood out to Robert that there was no national organization focused on training and workforce development in the trades of auto restoration,” says Jeff Mason, president and COO of The Piston Foundation.

Knowing that the automotive aftermarket is a multi-billion-dollar industry (recently surpassing $51 billion in sales, according to the 2023 SEMA Market Report) and that there are at least 25 million car enthusiasts in the U.S., Minnick was surprised to learn how few dollars were being put back into the vehicle community to fund skilled trade education, preserve car-craft skills and train the next generation.

As Mason explains, Minnick’s solution was the creation of The Piston Foundation (Piston), a public charity dedicated to supporting skilled trade education and hands-on training for young car enthusiasts who want to become classic car technicians.

“When car enthusiasts and the car industry support Piston, they are giving to meet the grassroots needs of their own car community” Mason says.

Piston is a virtual organization based in Greenwich, Connecticut, with volunteers, ambassadors and partners across the country.

“We have a small staff and a growing group of volunteers who help us run our programs,” Mason says. “While many people think Piston has been around a long time, we’re really still a startup and just starting our fourth year.”

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Now in its fourth year, The Piston Foundation supports skilled trade education and hands-on training for young car enthusiasts who want to become classic car technicians. (Photo courtesy Chris McNeil Photography)


The mission of The Piston Foundation is to help more young people become classic car technicians. Quite simply, the organization is building a career path into these jobs so that all interested car enthusiasts can learn the skills that unlock these rewarding careers.

According to Mason, the organization is striving to solve the skilled technician shortage and make classic car careers accessible to everyone. It’s also working to preserve car-craft skills by helping today’s craftspeople transfer their skills to the next generation.

“The trade skills of auto restoration are valuable and in-demand,” Mason says. “Restoration technician wages are higher and job mobility is greater. The collector car industry is entrepreneurial and offers many career pathways for technicians to pursue.”

The foundation has two career path programs, Piston Scholarships and Piston Academy Apprenticeships, that can help an enthusiast turn their interest in classic cars into a career.

As Mason explains, Piston scholarships support basic automotive education and Piston Academy apprenticeships support on-the-job experience.

“In 2024, we will award scholarships to just our third class of Piston Scholars. We are also running a pilot of our apprenticeship program, with hopes of launching it publicly in 2025,” Mason says.

The goal of the Piston scholarships is to reduce the financial barriers to technical education and make skilled trade classic car careers available to people from all backgrounds. A Piston scholarship awards up to $5,000 per year of tuition assistance.

As Mason explains, Piston scholarships are awarded to young car enthusiasts who have an interest in becoming a classic car technician and are enrolled in an auto tech or automotive restoration program at a two- to four-year college.

There are approximately 600 schools in the U.S. with programs in auto tech, auto performance, motorsports and restoration, officials estimate. Students who receive a Piston scholarship can be enrolled in any accredited auto program.

In addition to the scholarship program, the Piston Academy Apprenticeship program’s goal is to make auto restoration careers accessible, to transfer car-craft skills to a new generation and to solve the workforce shortage in the industry. The foundation envisions creating a national auto restoration apprenticeship program called the Piston Academy.

“The academy will place qualified apprentices in jobs at shops across the country and support them with direct grants and mentoring while they acquire the skills and experience needed to become fully billable technicians earning a living wage, seeding the next generation of skilled technicians,” Mason says.

In 2024, the Piston Foundation took the first step to realizing this vision by launching the Piston Academy pilot program by placing its first apprentice, Franko Montoya, at Paul Russel and Co. in Essex, Massachusetts.

“To complete the pilot in 2024 and launch the program in 2025, we are seeking the support of industry partners who want to help build a national auto restoration apprenticeship program that provides a career path for future technicians,” Mason says.

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Piston scholarships make a real difference in the lives of scholars and apprentices. (Photo courtesy Chris McNeil Photography)


The Piston Foundation (pistonfoundation.org) awarded its inaugural scholarships in 2022 to 10 top auto restoration students. In 2023, Piston awarded another 23 scholarships. To date, it’s given $147,500 to 26 students pursuing careers in automotive restoration.

Beginning this year, Piston will award scholarships twice a year, for fall and spring semester starts.

“Piston scholarships make a huge difference in the lives of our scholars and apprentices,” Mason says. “Scholarship awards can be the dollars that make tech school possible and keep a young person on a career path into the collector car industry.”

Piston scholarships also provide financial breathing space that let scholars focus on learning their skills, he adds.

“One scholar said, ‘It’s helped me not to worry about going to work so much. It’s allowed me to study more at school and learn more because I’m not so worried about my finances. It’s been a real blessing to have the support of the Piston Foundation,’” Mason reveals.

On top of the financial assistance, Piston scholarships also create a sense of community and belonging for students that didn’t always feel valued for their mechanical skills.

“Getting the Piston Scholarship to me means that I’m a valued part of the collector car world and that I’m worth something to someone. I’m not just here on my own. I’m like the kind of person the industry is looking for,” says a scholarship recipient.

For Montoya, the Foundation’s first Piston Academy apprentice, the support unlocked the chance at a lifelong career.

With a dream of becoming a paint and body specialist, he began his journey at a racing shop to gain experience until a position opened at a leading restoration shop.

“It was the opportunity of a lifetime, but I didn’t know if I could take it” Montoya recalls.

However, the Piston training grant Montoya received made apprenticeship financially possible and gave him the opportunity to start learning the trade.

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Beginning this year, Piston will award scholarships twice a year, for fall and spring semester starts. (Photo courtesy Zack Wiernusz)


Mason says that one of the industry’s prevailing myths is that young people aren’t interested in these classic car jobs anymore.

The truth is that automotive students can face daunting education costs. Meanwhile, aspiring classic car technicians without years of experience struggle to get hired.

“It’s not a lack of interest keeping young people from becoming classic car technicians—it’s a lack of access,” Mason says. “Piston scholarship and apprenticeship programs remove barriers to make classic car careers more accessible.”

Research shows that Piston’s scholarships of up to $5,000 are the right amount to ensure students can complete their technical education program and be ready to move into the workforce. Both career interest and financial need is considered, to focus the Foundation’s support on deserving and motivated students.

“Apprenticeship grants up to $15,000 also create access. We have found the gap between average apprentice pay and a sustaining wage is about $15,000 per year,” Mason says.

The lower wages reflect the lack of billable skills and experience at the start of an apprenticeship. Piston Academy training grants provide financial assistance for tools and other necessities while apprentices gain the experience they need to become fully billable technicians earning a living wage.

“From the beginning, Minnick’s idea to build a national car charity was a big one. We’re not afraid to do hard things, and piece by piece we’re building his vision,” Mason says.

A next step is for the Foundation to begin locating aftermarket partners, which Mason calls “a natural fit.”

“We would welcome the opportunity with any company that sees the value of building a career path for future technicians,” he says.

For now, The Piston Foundation’s immediate goal is to launch the national apprenticeship program and start changing the workforce story from graying to growing.

“As we build a career path that attracts and supports future technicians, The Piston Foundation will continue to focus on the grassroots needs of the car community and the collector car industry,” Mason says. “We hope to connect with car enthusiasts everywhere to share the passion we all have for car culture and build an organization that is of and for the community. We hope to build deep and lasting partnerships with the collector car industry and help it attract talented people that will keep it vital and strong.”

Maura Keller is a freelance writer based in Minnesota. She can be reached at maurakeller@yahoo.com.

Piston is a virtual organization based in Greenwich, Connecticut, with volunteers, ambassadors and partners across the country. (Photo courtesy Justin Nardella Photography)

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