Car Careers: How Viable are Auto Tech Careers in Today’s Industry?
Is working on cars for a living doable? Is it as easy as those late-night commercials claim? We talk to an Auto Tech program’s new recruits.
For Ricardo Gacobo, it was a simple solution. The 20-year-old Oklahoma City native likes cars and wanted to make a career out of them.
So, Gacobo decided to go to school to learn the trade.
His ambition eventually steered him toward the Automotive Technology program at Oklahoma City Community College (OCCC). It is the only two-year institution in the state that offers such a program.
“What made me want to join this class is, I really like cars and I really like working on cars,” Gacobo tells Honda Tech. “I want to learn more about it so I can help other people, and help myself. The best part is, I get to get my hands on the cars. Instead of just sitting at a table, taking notes, you actually get to go out there and do it yourself.”
This is what the professors at OCCC have been selling to the students for more than three decades. That includes Brad Walker, who is the Automotive Department Chair and a graduate of the program.
“OCCC has been running automotive classes for well over 30 years,” says Walker. “It’s successful because of the way we [run the program]. It allows our students to work full-time while coming to school full-time…so that helps a lot, especially for students coming through who have families.”
Walker also credits the program’s success to its corporate sponsorships, which provide auto-related jobs while the students are still in school.
‘For a long time the automotive industry wasn’t doing a whole lot of training of new people. They were just hiring. If I needed to hire somebody, I would go steal somebody from another shop, and that’s catching up with the automotive industry now.’
“We run programs with General Motors, Honda, Nissan and Subaru,” says Walker. “So, our Associates Degree also come with factory certification from those manufacturers. A person can walk out of here about 80% GM Master Certified, and they are about 80% Honda Master Certified when they’re done. This is our first year with Nissan and Subaru, so I’m not real sure of the percentage. Nissan said they’ll probably be somewhere between 70 and 80 % Master Certified. It comes with some very valuable certifications for them.”
For Nicholas White, a 20-year-old second-year student in the Honda program, being able to get hands-on experience at a job while still completing his degree is invaluable.
“It’s very beneficial that we do both,” says White. “Because a lot of times, when people go through programs like this, they only get school experience. They don’t get a whole lot of work experience. So, you can get done with school and have the degrees and everything, but then you go out to a shop and the shop environment is completely different than the school environment. So, everything in the classroom is set up, it’s rigged, and you know what to expect. But out at the shop, you never know what’s going to be next.”
According to Walker, the college needs to have such attractive incentives because of the growing shortage of technicians and mechanics across the country.
“For a long time the automotive industry wasn’t doing a whole lot of training of new people,” says Walker. “They were just hiring. If I needed to hire somebody, I would go steal somebody from another shop, and that’s catching up with the automotive industry now. And as these people are starting to retire, there’s no one to back-fill their spot. So, there is a huge shortage, and it’s a nationwide shortage.”
‘We have all kinds of GM & Nissan vehicles. They donate all those cars to us. And that’s a huge expense to them, but they know that there’s trouble brewing if they don’t hurry up and get people trained.’
Walker says automotive companies are now recognizing the problem and are trying to do something about it.
“Every manufacturer sees it and every manufacturer is really pumping resources to community colleges and places like that to help with this problem,” he says. “And that’s why you see all the really nice cars we have out here. If you go to our main campus, we have all kinds of GM and Nissan vehicles over there. They donate all those cars to us. And that’s a huge expense to them, but they know that there’s trouble brewing if they don’t hurry up and get people trained.”
The variety of different courses students can choose from include: Honda: Professional Automotive Career Training, Subaru University, Nissan/Infiniti Technician Training Academy, and the GM Automotive Service Educational Program.
“I have always been really interested in working on cars,” says White. “I was originally going to do the GM program, but Brad [Walker] told me they were opening up a Honda program. So, I decided that would be a lot cooler and decided to go that way. I just enjoy working on the smaller engines instead of the bigger engines.”
Despite the benefits, keeping the classes full can be a struggle. Walker says a lot of that has to do with the perception of exactly what the job entails in 2019.
“Sometimes we get a full class, but sometimes students don’t realize how much work this is,” says Walker. “Mainly, because when you think back years and years ago about working on cars, it wasn’t like this. And so we run classes that are pretty high-level, and sometimes people get in these classes and think, This is not what I was anticipating. And then it’s just sometimes hard to find people who want to work hard for a living. And the thing with this industry is…if you aren’t afraid of hard work, there is a job for you.”
Photos for Honda Tech by Michael Kinney