Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Regional award for Cuyamaca College automotive instructor

Automotive instructor Chris Branton works with Cuyamaca College students

EL CAJON – Proton exchange membrane. Equinox fuel cells. Hydrogen gas molecules. Lecture topics from college chemistry? Take another guess.
Those are terms that students of Cuyamaca College’s GM Automotive Service Education Program (ASEP) can expect to become intimately familiar with as General Motors’ fleet of hydrogen-powered vehicles move from research labs and limited test markets into people’s garages.
Chris Branton, a Cuyamaca College instructor for 28 years, 10 of them in the college’s well-regarded GM ASEP program, said the ever-changing technology of today’s cars requires even veteran teachers to constantly acquire new training to ensure the knowledge and skills they impart to students meet market demand.
In addition to being fully GM trained, Branton also has an ASE (National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence) master certification, which requires passing a battery of eight tests and recertification every five years.
 Branton’s commitment to training and teaching excellence was recognized recently by the western region International Association of GM ASEP, which oversees the program at nearly 20 schools across eight states and two Canadian provinces.
Kelly Smith, the association’s western region vice president, recently presented Branton the western region’s 2011Technical Instructor Award of Merit at a conference in Burbank.
 “It is a great honor, considering over 60 schools are in the mix,” Smith said.
Branton was nominated by Scott Main, a GM ASEP instructor at Shoreline Community College near Seattle, Wash . As a regional winner, Branton is a finalist for the international award to be presented in the fall by the international association governing GM ASEP schools across the United States and Canada, as well as in China and Ecuador.
“Chris has been a valued contributor to the GM ASEP team for several years, including working tirelessly with our standards committee,” Smith said.
The financial woes of American auto manufacturers have forced the associate-degree program at Cuyamaca to go on hiatus for three years, but it is scheduled to return next year.
Branton said that with 14 GM dealerships shutting down in San Diego County in the past two years, fewer spots are available for student internships, a crucial part of the program that alternates classroom instruction with on-the-job training.  
Cuyamaca, whose auto tech program was named a Top 20 finalist for 2011 School of the Year by a national industry magazine, is the only site in San Diego County and one of six colleges statewide to offer the ASEP program. The GM program helps dealers and service centers recruit and train qualified entry-level service technicians. 
Students undergo an intense six-semester program with no summers off, but with a near-guarantee of a job at a 99 percent employment rate among graduates, the program can boast a completion rate of 84 percent. Another payoff is that graduates typically earn $60,000 annually as journeymen certified technicians after less than five years’ experience.
As GM ASEP’s lead instructor at Cuyamaca College for the past 10 years, Branton is strongly identified with the program and keeps in touch with many of the graduates.
“Chris (Branton) was awesome – he was on top of everything,” 2005 graduate Richard Hogue said about the program which began at Cuyamaca in 1997. With the associate’s degree and work experience he gained through the GM ASEP program, the then-22-year-old obtained a vocational teaching credential and was hired as the automotive instructor at Granite Hills High School in El Cajon.
“He always comes in early and stays there late and is as willing as he could be to help students. He would help me, not just in the ASEP classes, but my other classes, too, where he’d contact my other instructors to keep track of my progress,” said Hogue, who has since earned a bachelor’s degree from San Diego State University.
College President Mark J. Zacovic said instructors with Branton’s commitment to students are what make Cuyamaca the special place that it is. 
“The automotive technology program is nationally regarded for consistently producing technicians who are in high demand because they are job ready,” he said. “The auto industry is dependent on colleges like Cuyamaca to produce the well-skilled workers needed to keep today’s advanced vehicles running.”
Branton, who started as what he calls a “shade-tree mechanic” tinkering on his ’57 Chevy, said there was a time when automotive shops would hire “just about anyone with a pulse.”
“I was going to Grossmont College getting a degree in architecture back in 1972,” he said. “I was walking down the street and went into a Standard service station and applied. They hired me right then and there and I’ve been in the automotive business ever since. The industry has become much more selective. Computer, electrical, safety, strategies, logic and reading skills have become so important.”
 As with other college academic programs, state budget cuts have deeply impacted automotive technology. The number of classes offered has been cut, along with the loss of part-time instructors who have ties to the automotive industry.
Still, with the GM ASEP program’s return next fall and the revival of the similar Ford ASSET (Automotive Student Service Educational Training) program next month, automotive technology is revving up once more at Cuyamaca College.