Juan Reynoso kept staring at a car engine. 

He’d been told to dismantle and rebuild it. 

He wasn’t 100% sure he was up to the task.

Nearly three years ago Reynoso stared at his future during engines class at Merced College. He grew up fixing cars with his father Armando. Yet, fixing that specific engine by himself was different.

Merced College’s Automotive Technology program trains students to diagnose, repair and maintain car systems. It also nurtures them to conquer tough fixes like the one Reynoso faced. 

Michael Weepers, both professor and graduate of Merced College program, is a passionate advocate for that rigorous process for all Career Technical Education (CTE).

“I see what is truly important, about all community college vocational programs,” Weepers said. “They have strong relations with local employers. They’re affordable. I see value at Merced College.”

Key in ignition

For the rest of 2020, Weepers and fellow professor Aaron Gregory will work on renewing the program’s Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certification, a national designation the best schools and best mechanics have.

Merced College has to recertify every five years, but it’s the first time since spending state Strong Workforce money to add state-of-the-art vehicle lifts and tire-changing equipment. 

This program is improving all the time.

Fast Track

Merced College stays on the cutting edge because it can (1) deliver classes one by one or (2) via a three-semester Fast Track. 

They nurture soft skills by starting each eight-week Fast Track course at 8 a.m., giving an hour for lunch and letting students clock out at 4:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Whichever route students take—roughly 70 graduate annually—they learn to arrive on time and be accountable.

The program starts with an entry-level electronics class that students dread, then love. It ends with a capstone course where students repair donated cars. When they finally work for  pay, Weepers calls their transition “almost seamless.”

“So many of our students face challenges, so they do struggle [to start],” he said. “Fast forward to the end and I know I would hire them. It’s a complete 180. The structure really helps.”

Affordable Luxury

Training to become an automotive technician somewhere besides a college could cost multiple thousands of dollars. Auto systems are complex; training is advanced. Still no one needs debt.

It’s affordable at the College. Tuition for one academic year costs $1,104. Also, through the State College Promise, tuition for first-time, full-time Merced College students is free.

Weepers knows people who paid through the nose at for-profit schools, but couldn’t get a proper job at the end. The automotive crew at the College forge relationships with local dealerships, and collaborate with them to fill jobs local employers want filled. 

Through partnerships with the Ford ACE and Toyota TECS programs, Merced College can also access vehicles, equipment and training modules the companies’ in-house mechanics use every day.

“All of that is why we are so effective at placing students,” Weepers said. “The purpose of a community college is to serve the community. We serve students and employers by connecting them.”

Engine Rebuild

That brings us back to Reynoso, who originally wanted to be a mechanical engineer. He started on that path, but stalled. 

When he returned to school in 2017 for that engines class, Gregory saw his aptitude and gave him a friendly shove. Reynoso had never done a full engine repair alone but finished first, sorting out the 2001 Toyota Camry in 60 hours.

“It was amazing,” Reynoso said. “Everything I’d learned made sense seeing the engine laid out. I would ask [Gregory] a question and he’d guide me. ‘Think about this. Remember when we did that?’ He helped me through the thought process so I understood what to do.”

Reynoso, employed at the Auto Shop in Modesto, confidently says the repair would now take him 20 hours. 

“I feel nowadays people don’t want a blue collar career,” he said. “Even I was kind of disappointed in myself because I didn’t get a full degree. But after getting my AA and going to work, it was worth it. I wake up and want to go to work. I really love it.”

Finish line

Reynoso, out of work for three months due to the pandemic, landed on his feet. He never stopped being employable.

“The teachers really care about their students,” he said. “Then you work in a field where you never stop learning. … It’s an amazing program.”

Merced College is training highly skilled mechanics for the technological age. 

“We can’t pump enough graduates out quickly enough to fill the demand for quality technicians,” Weepers said. “It’s a nice problem to have.”

By Luciana Chavez, Special to the Office of External Relations

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