Computers and Carburetors: Today’s Gearheads Increasingly Geared Toward Tech. Programs

September 07, 2018

The next time you take your car to the mechanic, take a look inside the garage. You may be surprised by what you find. As Rajanpal Dhillon, Saddleback College’s Senior Automotive Laboratory Technician explains, today’s mechanics are just as geeky as they are greasy.

“Today’s cars need a different type of mechanic to fix them than those that fixed cars in the 70s, 80s, and even 90s,” says Dhillon, who is himself an ASE certified Master Automotive Technician. “[They] need to know more than just how an engine works. They have to be electricians, they have to understand how hybrid fuel cells work, and they have to know how to read complicated manuals.

“It’s not enough to be good with your hands anymore. Automotive technicians have to be good with their brains, too.”

While Tesla’s future-forward electric car seems to be the poster child of this new frontier, automotive stalwarts like the Ford Motor Company aren’t far behind. Since opening the Ford Research and Innovation Center in Palo Alto in 2015, the facility has become home to more than 160 researchers, engineers, and scientists who are all committed to creating new connections between automotive and digital technologies.

In order to keep up with this rapidly changing technological landscape and provide the best in automotive technology instruction, Orange County’s Community Colleges offer many different programs and certifications that are accredited by the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation, Inc. (NATEF).

Depending on the college, students can pursue Associate of Science degrees in Automotive Technology, or a wide variety of certifications such as Cypress College’s Body Electrical Systems Specialist Certificate; Golden West’s Drivetrain and Chassis Specialist Certificate; or Santa Ana’s Snap-On Diagnostics Certificate which prepares students for entry into the specialized field of diagnosing, testing and repairing computer-controlled ignition, fuel and emission systems. In addition, all of Orange County’s automotive technology programs prepare students for industry-standard Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certifications.

Despite the differences in what they offer, Orange County’s community college automotive technology programs pride themselves on their ability to provide hands-on learning experiences on state-of-the art technology. This is exactly the experience Peter Lindstrom was looking for when he took an engine class at Saddleback.

“One of the best things about the engine program is that students are basically required to bring in an engine, tear it apart, and rebuild it,” Lindstrom said. “You get engines of all kinds and students get to see how different engines use different approaches to solve the same problems.”

Like a proud father, Dhillon enjoys talking about the different types of state-of-the-art technologies that students get to “play” with.

“To learn about how electric cars work, we start by having students work on golf carts and then a 96-volt Switchlab 3-wheeler,” Dhillon said. They take those cars apart and put them back together and learn everything about how an electric car works. Finally, they see how this all comes together when they get to work on our 2017 Nissan Leaf and our 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid.”

In addition to providing state-of-the-art instruction, these automotive technology programs also work hard to connect students with possible employers. For example, Golden West, Cypress College, and Santa Ana all hold “Meet the Tech” events in which students get to meet and interact with regional dealership service managers and directors.

Last year, the Orange County Auto Dealership Association (OCADA), which helps organize these “Meet the Tech” events, gave out $75,000 in scholarships to 80 Orange County automotive tech students. Key regional partnerships such as this one make community college automotive tech graduates particularly successful in the regional economy, especially given the job opportunities provided by OCADA’s automotive tech recruitment website,

Today, Peter works for CP-Carrillo, making pistons and connecting rods for cars, in a job he got because of a reference from Saddleback College instructor and automotive technology instructor, Cliff Meyer. Peter credits Saddleback and the practical training he received in automotive technology, math, and science with making this possible.

“Working through Saddleback gave me direction, a lot of direction,” says Peter. “I got into cars, wanted to know how they worked, got into math and science, then learned how to use that math and science to develop the parts that go back into the car.

“Without the program… I wouldn’t be here.”

To learn more about Orange County’s community college automotive technology programs, visit