Turning a Passion for Cars into an Associate's Degree

Governor Schwarzenegger and other lawmakers want public school students to get more vocational education and one program that could stand to benefit is automotive education. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez profiles a recent community college graduate who enrolled in an auto program because his high school didn't offer one.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: This spring, 22-year-old Daniel Arias received his associate's degree from Cerritos College in Norwalk.

Daniel Arias: My parents were happy. I'm the first to graduate from both sides of my family and the first one to graduate high school.

Guzman-Lopez: During the ceremony, Arias considered that family milestone. But he was also eager for the ceremony to be over with. He has a lot of plans, and one more class to take: Steve Berklite's auto air conditioning course.

Steve Berklite (lecturing in class): Remember, we're going to spend three days on air distribution, so let's talk a little about physics! Science, folks!

Guzman-Lopez: Arias is one of 27 students in the four-hour class. It meets at seven in the morning, twice a week.

Arias has been into cars since he began drawing box-like roadsters as a seven year old. He was a teenager when his dad taught him how to take care of a car: tune ups, oil changes, that sort of thing.

School didn't really interest him. He spent more time drawing in class, he says, than paying attention. He graduated with a C+ average. Soon after that he began washing cars at a Cadillac dealership in West Covina.

Managers there spotted his potential, and urged him to enroll in Cerritos College's automotive program. Arias says it's a good mix of theory and practice.

Arias: It's easier for me to take a car apart, like rebuild the transmission, take it out of a car, in a certain amount of time. Before I couldn't do any of that.

Guzman-Lopez: Arias's college instructor, Steve Berklite, applauds Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's efforts to revitalize vocational training. Berklite says the trades are hurting for people with good training, no matter where they get it.

Steve Berklite: Whether it's down at the high school, the community college, it doesn't matter, or maybe it's a union apprenticeship program, that's okay too. The key is you've got to train the people; they can't walk in and do this anymore, it's too sophisticated.

Guzman-Lopez: Berklite says the country needs 30,000 new auto technicians every year. About 7200 people graduate, he adds, with training from programs like his. Graduates end up with jobs that really pay.

Berklite: They'll normally be 50-70,000 range, and I have students, many students, that after about six or eight years are six-digit income.

Guzman-Lopez: Not a bad return, he says, on an investment of $3600 for two years of community college.

Graduate Daniel Arias likes the financial potential of his automotive associate's degree. But, the potential for his drawing talent to lead to something big became obvious to him a couple of years ago when he watched a documentary about Walt Disney.

Arias: He did what he wanted to do in his lifetime; he designed a lot of things. He was a creator, you know, he was an entrepreneur that started from nothing and became something.

Guzman-Lopez: That's the rough sketch he's made for his own life.

Arias: I see myself 10 years from now being a designer, designing cars or working for Disney designing rides, whichever one comes first.

Guzman-Lopez: His community college instructors told him about the world famous automotive design program at Art Center in Pasadena. Daniel Arias is finishing his last community college classes, and in a few months he plans to assemble his portfolio and apply to Art Center.