Orange County Career Education Collaboration is Driving Automotive Training Programs

February 27, 2020

From the grease and gears of the past to the sophisticated computers of tomorrow, the automotive field is changing exponentially, transforming the way we operate and service cars. The call for a cutting-edge approach in education is clear, and five bold Orange County community colleges have come together to collaborate, innovate, and drive advanced transportation into the future.

“As a region, we wanted to come together as a team, rather than as competitors,” says Anthony Teng, dean of advanced technology and applied science at Saddleback College.

In 2016, Saddleback, Cypress, Golden West, Santa Ana, and Fullerton colleges banded together to form the Vertical Sector Lead (VSL) Advanced Transportation Collaborative. Their goal: to make automotive education stronger by sharing a curriculum and pooling resources.

As a first step, faculty and lab techs across the five colleges joined forces to delineate a shared fundamental curriculum while maintaining each college’s specialization.

“We respected each other’s service areas,” says Teng. “We also recognized that there were unique capabilities at each of the colleges.”

For example, Golden West College has a generalist program with training that focuses on Honda-manufactured vehicles, while Cypress offers training focusing on Toyotas. At Saddleback, instead of providing specific training with a manufacturer, they specialize in electric cars and alternative fuel vehicles. Meanwhile, Fullerton offers robust generalist training, while Santa Ana has specialized programs in diesel tech and other alternative fuels.

The collaborative’s first step was maintaining this program diversity while building a curricular foundation for all programs. To accomplish this, the collaborative worked together on everything from selecting the common industry-standard tools in the shops, to identifying what students should learn in their intro classes. That way, students could move seamlessly between the different college programs while retaining a common foundation.

The colleges also teamed up to share professional development and third-party industry certifications, including a cutting-edge, “build-it-yourself” electric car curriculum from Switch Vehicles, a company focused on educating and inspiring new generations of leaders, innovators, and citizens, while promoting the switch to clean, sustainable energy.

Known as The Switch Lab, the curriculum includes a three-wheeled electric vehicle and is an innovative and cost-effective way to teach electric transportation technology. Used in classrooms across the United States, the Switch vehicle is built and driven by students and then disassembled for use in the next semester.

Using regional Strong Workforce funds, Switch Vehicles training and vehicle kits were offered to all of the five colleges free of charge, as well as local high schools.

“The cool thing about these vehicles is that you can quickly assemble and disassemble them so that you can identify the various components in the electric car,” says Teng. “It’s a fantastic way to bring in the STEM aspect of automotive and to make it real for students. By offering it to high schools, it was also a nice way of aligning the high schools all the way through the community colleges in terms of the electric vehicle.”

In addition to The Switch Lab, the collaborative has been hard at work formalizing the process for third-party industry certifications for faculty and students.

Some certifications include the Basic Automotive Tire Services (ATS) certification from from the Tire Industry Association (TIA), the American Lift Institute’s Lift Inspector Certification, which students can complete before they finish their first class, and a multi-level set of automotive certifications through the National Coalition of Certification Centers, or NC3.

“The whole idea is to provide a lot of opportunities for each of the colleges so that we can train the students as they come through to prepare them for work,” says Teng.

And that training is crucial, because industry demand is soaring for skilled professionals. According to the latest Orange County Center for Excellence report, the advanced transportation and logistics sector accounts for 58,520 jobs in Orange County with demand expected to climb by 4%—or 2,327 annual jobs—over the next five years.

“Our industry partners say they can’t keep up with the need for qualified technicians,” says Teng. “Almost every employer that we’ve talked to says that if we could train more qualified technicians, they would hire them.”

Not only are graduates finding work in automotive, but many go on to get hired as engineers and designers in aerospace and other sectors. Teng points out that there is tremendous potential for these students across all industries when students master automotive basics.

“At Saddleback, we’ve got students who may have gone through the basic automotive program, but by the time they’re finished with their education, they’ve gone on to work with NASA,” relates Teng.

Looking ahead, the VSL Advanced Transportation Collaborative is looking forward to the Mobilize Summit this summer, a conference that gathers all the advanced transportation regional directors across the state to talk about the future. In this second annual conference, experts in all areas, including manufacturers, representatives, and tech developers, will gather to share the latest.

“We’re hearing it firsthand where the technology is going,” says Teng. According to Teng, one of the hot topics is going to be emerging autonomous vehicle technology. Commercially, this technology is already available in its initial forms, from parking assistance to backup cameras. But Teng relates that before we know it, there will be cars that will drive themselves—and they will need the skilled workers of the future to keep them running properly.

“They’re going to need technicians who can service the fundamental end of the car, such as tires and brakes, all the way up to training engineers who can program these cars,” says Teng. And as the future gets closer, he anticipates collaborating with manufacturers to see how community colleges can support building this skilled workforce.

While the training and equipment for such specialized and cutting-edge technology will be significant, Teng posits a synergetic solution: What if the VSL Advanced Transportation Collaborative created a regional center for advanced transportation at the heart of the county that could provide training for these advanced technologies?

“That way, we can bring all of the resources of the five colleges together in one place so that we all don’t have to buy the same equipment,” says Teng.

It would also be a place to bring in industry partners, where experts and designers can interface with college faculty and even students. After all, many of the manufacturers of autonomous vehicles are either based in or run major operations in Orange County, including Tesla, Ford, Mercedes, and BMW.

“We could draw in support everywhere from Los Angeles to the Inland Empire to San Diego and become a training hub for the entire region,” says Teng.

“Automotive today is a lot different than it was even five or ten years ago, and our crystal ball shows it’s going to change even faster,” says Teng.

The key to rising to the challenge? More collaborations like the VSL Advanced Transportation Collaborative.