Profile: SFCC Automotive Programs Prepare Students for Professional Service
To some, a vehicle is just a means of transportation; to others, a vehicle is a representation of their personality and how they see themselves. But no matter how we consider them personally, it takes skill and talent to keep a vehicle performing and looking its best. The automotive programs at South Florida Community College give students the training they need to provide these services to others.
Automotive Service Technology professors Dan Keller, SFCC Highlands Campus, and Phil Rizzo, SFCC DeSoto Campus, see a variety of students come into their programs, from beginners who have never even seen the inside of an engine to those who have been working on cars their entire lives but want to take their skills to a professional level. “Many shops and dealerships have their own specialized training, but we provide the basic foundation so that our students can go on to these higher level skills and jobs,” Keller said.
SFCC’s program focuses on brakes, steering suspension, engine performance, engine repair, air conditioning and heating, automatic transmission and manual drive train, axels, and electrical and electronic systems as well as service writing and customer relations skills. Often times, students discover they want to specialize in a particular area and will move on to jobs in which this type of service work is the only thing they do.
According to Keller, those who work in auto technician services must have mechanical aptitude as well as math skills so that they can determine cost estimates and measurements for parts. “Most also have a natural curiosity about how things work and enjoy taking things apart and putting them back together,” he said.
Program instructors teach using real vehicles, and the majority of the vehicles the automotive service technology program uses are donated to the college by dealerships as well as individuals and are reused for as long as possible. Students start out training on these vehicles first before moving on to vehicles that are brought in for service by the public and college employees. This provides them with hands-on, real-world work experience that is necessary for the job.
The program accepts cars and light trucks, and anyone who wants to have their car serviced must make an appointment. The vehicle must also meet special criteria to be considered, including being no older than 10 years past the manufacturing year, have less than 100,000 miles, and the service needed must be related to what is being taught in the class at the time. Students can perform typical maintenance including oil changes, coolant flushes, brake work, tire and alignment work, and engine performance and diagnoses at minimal cost. “You can learn the textbook, but you still have to be able to apply that knowledge on an actual vehicle,” Kellar said.
Another real-world experience students receive is the opportunity to work on the pit crew during the 24 Hours of Sebring. “They get to work on some of the cars, and they get to see some very skilled mechanics in action,” Rizzo said. “It’s a great learning experience for them.”
The Highlands Campus program is currently preparing for its reaccreditation from the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation (NATEF) later this year. One of the major projects Keller is working on in preparation is a complete revamping of the tool room in the shop. “We want to have everything organized and easily accessible to the onsite team,” he said.
At the DeSoto Campus, Rizzo is preparing for the program’s very first accreditation. He expects its onsite visit in late February or early March. “A program must meet 10 different standards,” he said. “NATEF will inspect many of these areas including curriculum, facilities, safety, and our tools and equipment. We’ve been preparing for this for three years.”
While the Automotive Service Technology program teaches students how to keep cars running, professors Daniel Longenecker, SFCC Highlands Campus, and Dan West, SFCC DeSoto Campus, teach their students how to keep cars looking good in the Automotive Collision Refinishing and Repair program.
“Most auto collision repair students have some type of artistic ability,” Longenecker said.
“We help them expand those skills into custom painting and design as well as candy color paint techniques and motorcycle painting.”
But there is more that goes into making a car look good than just a fresh coat of paint. “Everybody sees what the painters do, but they don’t always see what the body workers do –straightening out dents, realigning the ends, and sometimes even rebuilding the vehicles,” Longenecker said. “These require more sculptural type skills.”
Like auto service technicians, auto body repair workers can specialize in a specific area. “Back in the day, one worker did everything,” West said. “Now, if someone just wants to paint, they can do just that. If someone just wants to do body work, they can, and if someone wants to focus on heavy collision in which they use a frame machine to straighten out cars, they can do that too.”
But while the automotive services technology program depends heavily on donated vehicles, the automotive collision repair and refinishing program relies solely on vehicles that are brought in by the public, SFCC employees, and students. “Everything we work on belongs to somebody,” Longenecker said. “This provides our students with hands-on, real-world work experience. They know the job has to be done right because somebody is expecting it.”
The majority of the vehicles the program works on are more modern cars and trucks, but every so often a special project pulls into the garage. Currently, automotive collision repair and refinishing students at the Highlands Campus are working on restoring a 1979 Lil Red Express, and students at the DeSoto Campus are working on a 1953 Chevy that was used as an army/air force ambulance, both brought in by members of the public. “It gives them the opportunity to do something different and helps them expand their skills,” West said.
Instructors in both programs work to ensure their students’ success and even place them in internships and co-ops that often lead to permanent employment later on. Many of their students have been hired by the same shops following their graduations. This is not surprising to the instructors. Even with the current economy, the need for both auto service technicians and auto body workers is great. “There is a problem in the industry right now with most of its workers being 55 and older,” Longenecker said. “New, younger workers aren’t coming in as fast as the older workers are retiring, so there is a shortage in dealerships and body shops.”
Another issue the industry is facing is changing technology. “Technology is rapidly advancing; even the dealerships have difficulty keeping up, but we expand what we teach when the technology becomes available,” Keller said.
To keep up with these new trends, Rizzo attends new product seminars as well as an annual NATEF conference where he gets to speak with instructors at other institutions. “It helps us see what is being used in the industry and helps dictate what we buy and what we teach in our program, so that we are on the same page as everyone else,” he said.
“Workers in both industries have a sense of pride in what they do,” West said. “Auto service technicians are proud when they finish a car and they hear the engine run smoothly, and auto body workers are proud when they finish the outside of the car and they can see the extent of their work. But whichever part they work on, they are just happy to know that a vehicle is in top shape because of them.”