Monday, April 20, 2015

Cuyamaca College's big day: Hot wheels, cool competiton, live bands

Automotive Skills Day competition at Cuyamaca College.

Car enthusiasts will be treated to a vintage auto show at the same time they watch teens turn wrenches during Cuyamaca College’s annual High School Automotive Skills Day competition 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, May 2.

Now in its 36th year, the event is the longest running at the Rancho San Diego campus. About 50 students from eight schools will experience the excitement of head-to-head competition, vying for thousands of dollars in cash and prizes, said Chris Branton, coordinator of the college’s automotive technology program and co-chair of the event, along with instructor Jim Hannibal. About 30 Cuyamaca College students will also compete – but not for prizes – and take part as event volunteers and judges.

The public is invited to cheer on their favorite school, and to stick around on campus for the student-run Coyote Music Festival taking place on the grand lawn from noon to 4 p. m. Both events are free, as is parking.

“Classic and modern cars, plus live bands on three stages for the admission price of zero – you can’t ask for more,” said President Mark J. Zacovic. “What a great day for Cuyamaca College to share with the community its outstanding automotive technology and music programs.”

For vintage car lovers, the event includes a can’t-be-missed opportunity to check out 20 show cars being rolled out by the Over the Hill Gang of San Diego, a hot rod car club that gave more than $3,000 this month to five Cuyamaca students enrolled in a GM-sponsored training program. Club member and scholarship chairperson Paula Pifer said this year, the club decided to donate a portion of the proceeds from its annual car show to local automotive students and the GM-ASEP (Automotive Service Educational Program) at Cuyamaca College was the club’s first choice. 

“We are very interested in helping automotive students who want to further their education in the automotive field,” said Pifer, a Grossmont College alum whose husband received an automotive certificate from Cuyamaca College that helped him begin a post-Navy career in the transportation sector. “We hope to continue this relationship with the college so we can help future students in this program.”

Another private supporter is the local chapter of the Automotive Service Council of California, co-sponsors of the skills day event, which has donated tens of thousands of dollars over the years in prizes. This year, tools totaling between $3,000-$6,000 in value will be awarded to students competing in individual and team categories of engine repair, transmission, suspension and steering, brakes, electrical, AC and engine performance. 

For the instructors from schools including Ramona, Clairemont, Monte Vista, Grossmont, and Crawford high schools, this year’s event will offer a technical training seminar on hybrid vehicles. 

 “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,” Branton said. “Our department also benefits in many ways from this event – recognition, high school and industry contacts – plus the students really get revved up for the competition.”

Organizers say the longevity of the event is due to the strong ties the college’s auto tech faculty has forged 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 to diagnose and repair today’s computerized cars.

“The program is an excellent example of our colleges’ responsiveness to community and workplace needs.”  Zacovic said. “Today’s students are tomorrow’s labor pool.” 

With technical skills well beyond those needed in the past, graduates of Cuyamaca’s program who go on to get industry certification can expect 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, industry analysts project a pronounced shortage of automotive technicians within the next five to 10 years as the crop of new employees steadily shrinks, due to a decreased emphasis on vocational training in high schools.

The good news is that the local auto service industry is on the mend, reflective of the nation’s economic recovery. Branton said he is getting more calls than ever from dealerships and automotive shops looking to hire entry-level technicians.

 “The job outlook is really good and growing,” he said.

 Cuyamaca College is at 900 Rancho San Diego Parkway in Rancho San Diego. For campus and driving maps, go to, or call (619) 660-4000.

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