Dan Fuller and the Next Generation of Automotive Technicians
When I got into the automotive industry, many people would say to me, “Oh, you couldn’t go to college.” I did go but I didn’t like what I was learning there. I wanted to work on cars. I wanted to be an automotive technician.
I’m still hearing comments like that today. Recently, I was talking to two sets of parents, who were bringing their sons to Gateway. They said, “We can’t get them to go to college so maybe they’d like to do this.”
When I responded, “This is a college,” they answered, “You know, a real college.”
What is Gateway Community College?
In 1992, South Central Community College in New Haven merged with Greater New Haven State Technical College in North Haven to form Gateway Community College. Manufacturers like GM and Toyota recognized the need for post-secondary automotive education and sought partnerships with technical colleges like Gateway that offer applied science and occupational degrees. Some 30 years later Gateway’s automotive department has grown and now partners with manufacturers such as GM, Honda, and Subaru, while offering a strong generic program as well. As a result, we do a great job of giving someone a well-rounded education when they want an associate’s degree in a specialized technical field and our manufacturer partners benefit by gaining technicians with high tech skills that match the technology in modern vehicles.
There are larger automotive programs in other parts of the country and even some restoration programs, but I think the real way to learn one-off work like restoration is by an apprenticeship. Then again, an older car might not be high tech but the equipment used on it is, like CNC laser and plasma cutting to fabricate parts. So, there’s still value in a post-secondary education there.
Respect for Skilled Trades?
As department chair, I come into contact with guidance counselors and find it’s difficult to get them to mention our Automotive Program as a viable alternative for students. We got a grant five years ago and bussed them to our campus with the promise of a gourmet lunch prepared by our culinary students. They were blown away by how clean, modern, and professional our facility was. But the end result was really depressing because they told me, “Well, if we have students who are not college material, we’ll talk to them about you guys.”
That attitude toward skilled people in any trade, not just automotive, hasn’t changed in 40 years. In other countries, especially in Europe, those in the trades are highly regarded. I’m not sure why people driving incredibly complex machines don’t appreciate the skills it takes to work on those cars or, in the automotive restoration field, what an art and a craft it is to be able to bring something back to life after years of neglect.
What Can Kids Learn?
I don’t know where this all comes from other than how we drill it into kids that they have to do well in school so they can go to college, without stopping to ask them what they want to do with their lives. So many kids come here and flourish. They light up when they realize they can have a lucrative career doing something they love, working with their hands and their minds. I feel that, as a society, we’re short-changing our young men and women by not finding out what they want to do with themselves and then guiding them toward where they want to go.
I think the real way to learn one-off work like restoration is by an apprenticeship.
They should know they can be like Wayne Carini working with collector cars or up in Lakeville with race cars or as a highly skilled BMW tech making $150,000.
There was a student who came through the program a few years ago. He’d been at the Bethlehem Fair when he saw the antique tractors. He liked the tractor pulls. He came to Gateway because his parents wanted him to go to college but his passion was antique tractors. Now, he’s working in a dealership in Fairfield County (Connecticut) and spends his spare time building tractors for pulling. He got what he wanted because we showed him that he could earn a living and still pursue something outside of mainstream automotive technology.
I Love Teaching Automotive Technicians
This industry has been great to me. I raised a family, put two wonderful daughters through school and I have fun every day. I love teaching the next generation of technicians the skills that will make them successful. I wouldn’t do this if I wasn’t passionate about it. There are some grouches in the shops who put on a good show but, if you are in this industry, you are here because you truly like it.