Paso Robles teacher surprised with $50,000 award for excellence

Paso Robles High School agriculture teacher Justin Pickard (holding check) was awarded $50,000 for his programs in the Harbor Freight Tools for Schools program for his excellence in teaching skilled trades.
Paso Robles High School agriculture teacher Justin Pickard (holding check) was awarded $50,000 for his programs in the Harbor Freight Tools for Schools program for his excellence in teaching skilled trades.

A Paso Robles High School agriculture teacher has won a $50,000 award for his skilled trade classes as part of a nationwide program for teaching excellence organized by Harbor Freight Tools.

Justin Pickard was surprised in his classroom Thursday by a representative from Harbor Freight Tools for Schools with the news.

“The creativity and hands-on projects that Mr. Pickard and the other winning teachers bring to their classrooms is an inspiration,” Danny Corwin, executive director of the program, said in a news release announcing the award. “This is education at its best, and we are humbled to honor these teachers and shine a light on excellence in skilled trades education.”

Three $100,000 first-place prizes were awarded to a welding teacher from Georgia, a building trades teacher from Michigan and an industrial diesel mechanics teacher from Ohio, as part of $1 million awarded nationally, with the prize winnings split between the individual teacher or team and their high school skilled trades program.

Pickard was among 15 second-place winners. Because of California’s state policy regarding individual cash awards to public employees, Pickard’s school will receive the entire prize winnings. Harbor Freight also donated $34,000 to 34 semifinalists.

According to the release, Pickard teaches welding and agriculture mechanics, creating a blend of academic and hands-on experiences for his students. A previous student mechanic at the Cal State Chico Farm Repair Shop, Pickard also worked as fabricator for the CSU, Chico Research Foundation. He uses his industry experience to help his students produce successful projects, each of them driven entirely by students. His students work from their own ideas, turn each idea into a written, well-structured plan and budget, and then turn the idea into a reality in the welding and fabrication shop.

“Being a trades teacher is a critical need as our economy and workforce continue to change and evolve,” Pickard wrote in his prize application.

What Pickard said he loves most about teaching is seeing his students develop through the years. He engages his students in both project fabrication and the development of their “soft skills,” such as dependability, arriving on time and prioritization. He emphasizes excellence in academics and behavior, while also engendering pride, preparation, respect, integrity and engagement in all aspects of learning and doing, according to the release.

“As students move through my program, the freedom to create based upon those initial skills is increased all while emphasizing the importance of safety in the shop,” Pickard said. “By the time a student is enrolled in my fabrication course, the philosophy has moved completely into ‘student designed learning.’”

The prize was started in 2017 by Harbor Freight Tools Founder Eric Smidt to recognize extraordinary public high school skilled trades teachers and programs with a proven track record of dedication and performance. The prize is awarded by Harbor Freight Tools for Schools, a program of The Smidt Foundation.

“These incredible teachers are an inspiration — to their students, to their communities and to us,” Smidt said in the release. “They are masters of their trades and instill in their students a passion for the skilled trades that gives them a path to a meaningful, good-paying career. These are local jobs in every community across America, building and repairing homes, fixing cars and appliances, and so much more.”

For more information about the Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence, including the final round panels of judges, please visit

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