Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Cuyamaca College hosting High School Automotive Skills Day Competition May 5

High-schoolers will vie for bragging rights as the county’s best auto tech students during Cuyamaca College’s annual High School Automotive Skills Day set for 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, May 5.
Now in its 33rd year, the competition is the longest running event at the Rancho San Diego campus, with the exception of commencement. Besides the excitement of going head-to-head against other car enthusiasts,  students benefit from the thousands of dollars awarded in cash and prizes for top finishers in the categories of engine repair, transmission, suspension and steering, brakes, electrical, AC and engine performance. The competition draws contestants from throughout the county, and not unlike the fan-friendly NASCAR Pit Crew Challenge, the public is invited to attend to cheer on a favorite school.
The local chapter of the Automotive Service Council of California, co-sponsors of the event along with Cuyamaca College’s automotive technology program, has donated tens of thousands of dollars over the years in prizes that go to the students, said Jim Custeau, the college program’s coordinator and perennial event organizer. This year, some $3,000-$6,000 in mostly tools will be awarded.
Participating Saturday will be about 70 automotive students from Clairemont, Monte Vista, Grossmont, El Capitan, Poway, San Dieguito and El Camino high schools.
“This auto skills day is a longtime tradition here at Cuyamaca because it’s not only fun, it provides an opportunity for high-school students to talk to professionals about the industry and career opportunities,” said Mark J. Zacovic, college president.
Under the scrutiny of about two dozen judges, including Cuyamaca College instructors and students, as well as technicians and operators of local automotive repair shops, students will compete individually or in pairs in advanced and beginning divisions. It takes two hours for the competitors to go through all eight stations set up in the college’s high-tech automotive technology building.
The longevity of the event is due, Custeau said, to the strong ties the college’s auto tech faculty has forged over the years with local industry, and the mutual benefit of the program to the college, automotive shops and dealerships. 
Because of the academic rigor and well-rounded education that graduates of the program receive, these future technicians are not only exceptionally trained, but have the critical thinking abilities required for the diagnostics and repair of today’s computerized cars.
“The dealerships and independent shops know that by supporting the program, they’re also supporting tomorrow’s labor pool,” said Cindy L. Miles, chancellor of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District. “The program is an excellent example of our colleges’ responsiveness to community and workplace needs.”
With today’s onboard computer systems requiring technicians to have skills well beyond those needed in the past generation, graduates of Cuyamaca’s program who go on to get industry certification can expect earn an average annual salary of between $40,000 and $60,000. Entry-level salaries are typically in the mid-$20- to $30,000 range, and the pay of top earners in high-volume dealership shops can exceed $100,000.
Even so, Custeau notes, industry analysts project a pronounced shortage of automotive technicians within the next five to 10 years as current workers retire and the crop of new employees steadily shrinks, due to a decreased emphasis on vocational training on the part of middle schools and high schools.
As the nation slowly recovers from the recession, Custeau said automotive repair jobs are showing some gain and local shops and dealerships are trolling once again for trainees and entry-level technicians.
“The job outlook is beginning to get brighter,” he said. “It was never as bad as construction and some other fields, but it did suffer from dealership closings. The ASCCA (Automotive Service Council of California) reports an uptick in business and most shops are beginning to hire again – at least I’m starting to get calls again, which is a good sign.”
And that, Custeau adds, is why events like Saturday’s are so important. When young people discover they have a passion for cars and the inherent mechanical skills to boot, finding a college like Cuyamaca is nothing short of life-changing.