On-ramp to Success: Automotive Technology at Orange County’s Community Colleges Feature Story

September 21, 2021

From electric vehicles to the emerging driver-assisted technology, today’s automobiles are more complex than ever. That’s why the automotive programs at Orange County community colleges are adapting their offerings to train future auto technicians for solid careers in a rapidly growing field.

Decades ago, cars were built more simply and repairing them was less difficult. Now, cars rely on computerized technology that requires specialized knowledge for any maintenance work.

“In 1950, you could put all the repair specifications for an automobile into a single binder. Now you need a room,” said Raj Dhillon, senior lab technician at Saddleback College’s automotive program.

Saddleback College is one of five Orange County community colleges that offer programs in automotive technology leading to a variety of degrees and state-approved certificates earned in two years or less. All five colleges — Saddleback, Santa Ana, Fullerton, Cypress and Golden West — offer general technician training in automotive technology as well as special areas of focus, such as Honda Vehicles at Golden West College; Toyotas at Cypress; heavy duty and diesel vehicles at Santa Ana; automotive management at Fullerton; and alternative fuels at Saddleback.

Additionally, a variety of noncredit programs at Santa Ana College and Golden West College provide a fast and free way for students to get basic skills they need to start working in the industry, while laying the foundation for future education. For example, Santa Ana offers a tuition-free noncredit Auto Mechanic course that teaches students general vehicle maintenance and repair, as well as putting them on the pathway to SAC’s Automotive Technology certificate program. Similarly, Golden West offers tuition-free courses such as Smog Inspector, Lube Technician Specialist, Tire and Wheel Technician, and Vehicle Maintenance Specialist that can help students land jobs and prepare them for college-level coursework.

More importantly, all these programs are tied to local dealerships and repair shops, ensuring that students have a clear pipeline to a job. For example, Saddleback has relationships with dealers selling Land Rovers, Jaguars and Audis which not only ensures their curriculum stays current, but also provides potential employment for students.

Similarly, Golden West College works with Honda and local dealers to place students while instructors from the college regularly attend conferences held by Honda to learn about emerging technologies and ensure their curriculum aligns with employers’ needs.

“As technology emerges with Honda, we are easily able to incorporate it into our program,” said Mike Russell, the Automotive Technology chair at Golden West College. “We basically get the technology when they get it.”

For example, vehicles with internal combustion engines relying solely on gasoline or diesel fuel are rapidly being replaced by an increasing number of electric vehicles and those using alternative fuels. As a result, Orange County community colleges have evolved their curriculum to stay with the times.

To accomplish this, students in the basic and advanced electrical classes in Saddleback’s automotive program work with an electric golf cart to learn how to remove its battery before moving onto an electric car with a 240-volt battery. The college also uses virtual reality simulators to teach students how to do an oil change, much like a student airline pilot uses a simulator before flying a plane.

“It’s like a game. They go over and over the process,” Dhillon said. “When we see how they score, we put them on the actual car.”

Saddleback College has 24 shop cars that can be used for students to practice their skills, including electric and hybrid vehicles. Similarly, Golden West College recently got a 2021 Volvo that will be used alongside 20 other vehicles to train students on the latest technology.

“We do tons of hands-on training,” Russell said. “We have a program that’s designed to challenge students into thinking through diagnostics.”

The automotive programs at Orange County’s community colleges are also preparing for the future, looking ahead to the time when vehicles are completely autonomous. Jaime Gonzalez, regional director of Advanced Transportation and Logistics programs for the colleges, predicts that autonomous vehicles will be the norm on highways within 20 to 30 years.

“What’s available right now is simply assisting the drivers. The car can do the thinking for us but we can still control the brake pedal, the gas pedal, and the steering wheel,” Gonzalez said. “In the future, the driver will have little or no control over the vehicle. Some manufacturers have suggested that vehicles won’t have steering wheels or pedals in them anymore.”

Gonzalez said the colleges have obtained funding to purchase advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) equipment and are in the process of integrating curriculum and the equipment into the existing programs to teach automotive students about the systems.

Dhillon said the job outlook is bright for automotive students trained on these new technologies. Auto mechanics may one day be required to become licensed technicians as vehicles become increasingly complex.

“Today’s student isn’t going to be tomorrow’s student,” he said. “In the future, I think students will be learning more programming, in addition to English, math and the sciences.”