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A job problem under repair

A job problem under repair

THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Listen, have I got a deal for you.

How would you like to go to school and learn a trade without leaping into debt? To sweeten the deal, you'd also get paid — on-the-job experience and the benefit of a mentor. Oh, and if you do all right, there's a free starter tool set and a job waiting for you at the end.

Today's economic forecast is cloudy with a chance of rain, so an offer like this caught my attention.

Saddleback College in Mission Viejo recently received a $50,000 grant from Tuttle-Click Automotive Group offering this sweet deal to students in its automotive technology program. The scholarships started in 2008 and were awarded to 10 students. This second round of awards just started.

For auto technicians looking to get a foot in the dealership door, it's a welcome mat.

"It offers them a career," explains Dale Sponseller, service manager for Tustin Tuttle-Click Chrysler Jeep Dodge, which currently has four apprentices. "It offers them a chance to make good money in a strong industry.

"Everybody drives. These students are our future."

Matt Perry, 28, graduated Irvine's Northwood High School in 2003. He didn't know exactly what he wanted to do, but he knew what he enjoyed: Working on cars.

"I'm more of a hands-on kind of guy."

He's sharp and articulate, but studying what he calls "softer skills," like history and literature, doesn't seem relevant right now.

"Academics seem to be given greater importance than doing stuff ... I see a lot of college debt and no jobs."

Now he has the job, but no debt.

Perry chose Saddleback because his high school shop teacher told him they had a good program. He went to school mostly part time while he worked at jobs with limited career potential.

In 2008, Perry received one of Tuttle-Click's first scholarships.

He had nearly earned all four of his automotive certificates, but he was still taking classes. The $750 per semester scholarship covered his tuition and books. Tuttle-Click gave him a $4,000 starter tool set and a job while he was in school. It offered real-world experience paying about $11 an hour — and he was paired with a technician with 25 years' industry experience.

"The value was being paired up with a mentor and not just being a lube tech. From the very beginning I helped fix cars with actual problems."

The scholarship solved that eternal Catch-22 of landing a first job.

"If you try to get in as an auto technician to diagnose and fix problems, you need experience. But if you don't have a job, how do you get experience?"

This is not your father's career. The future of automotive technology isn't going to look anything like its past.

"This is a forward-moving industry," explains Professor Clifford Meyer, chair of the automotive technology department at Saddleback. "It's not your old days when the counselor in high school would throw anybody who couldn't read into (automotive) technology."

Auto tech students can earn certificates as specialists in chassis, engine service, and engine performance, plus a general certificate as an automotive technician. They can combine these with academic courses in order to earn an associate in science degree and then transfer to a four-year university.

Students graduating from articulated local high school automotive programs receive college credit at Saddleback.

It's a public-school value at about $46 per unit.

"Saddleback was the best deal I ever got," Perry says. "It's a fantastic bargain."

The department offers 16 class sections per semester with 25 students in each. Meyer says enrollment has increased 4 to 8 percent per year over the past 10 years – and most classes fill the first week of registration.

"Our students are highly trained," Meyer notes. "And they get jobs."

Sponseller says Tuttle-Click was having trouble finding qualified technicians for its six local locations. By copying this program that the automotive group already offered at Pima College in Arizona, they can help train future technicians in Orange County themselves.

The scholarship program complements Saddleback's curriculum by letting students work on cars in the areas that match their current classes.

"Whatever the school is teaching them, we will actually teach them more in depth ... It's not a simulated problem in a car. It's an actual problem."

From his own experience, Sponseller thinks mentoring is key. His 23-year career started when his brother mentored him as a service technician.

•••

This program might not be the golden ticket to eternal riches, but it can be a first step toward a decent life.

Perry is two years out of school and still working at Tustin Chrysler Jeep Dodge where he is now a Chrysler certified master electrical technician.

He started with an interest in engines, but his mentor was an electrical technician. Electrical turned out to be Perry's strength and a good choice.

Cars have only gotten more electronically complicated, he explains, with their touch screens and Bluetooth technology. Activating a turn signal relies on a message passed through four computer centers.

"You have to have a more analytical, logical mind... Fixing something is easy. Diagnosing the problem is the hard part. I like the puzzle... That gives you a jolt. You can actually get it fixed."

Perry's advice?

"It's no longer adjusting valves and turning wrenches ... Learn as much as you can."

An electrical technician learns basic computer science, electrical theory, and logic.

"You won't get hired off the street with just a bag of tools. You need training."

Perry figures it takes 10 years' experience to become really good. But four years into his career, he's not bad.

Every day he goes to work and looks forward to working on cars – and that's not bad, either.

Contact the writer: Contact the writer: terylzarnow@gmail.com


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