By Abra Bennett
When you first meet Oscar Morales, even though English is his native tongue, he immediately begins speaking the language he loves best, saying things like “Japanese Arista right hand drive SC300 2JZDTE” and “R35 GRTR.” It’s the secret language of cars. Morales, owner of Valley Rollerz Garage and a Walla Walla Community College graduate, is a car whisperer.
“I can hear cars talk to me,” he confesses. “The thing that makes me a bit special is that I can do everything. There isn’t anything that I can’t do when it comes to cars. I can do body work, electrical, cut and weld, fabrication, order parts and identify them, cut out glass, do panel replacements, engine diagnostics, engine and transmission rebuilds, repair instrument clusters, everything.”
Morales is a star graduate of Walla Walla Community College (WWCC), having earned AAS degrees in both Collision Repair Technology and Automotive Repair Technology.
Ricky Aguilar is another rising star. He’s the current president of the Associated Student Body, has already received his degree in Automotive Repair Technology, and is studying for his Collision Repair Technology degree while working as a service writer at Bob’s Automotive in Kennewick. He’d like to open his own shop when he graduates next year, offering full detail, automotive, auto body, collision, electrical, and painting services.
Both of them trained in WWCC’s fully-equipped repair facility, under the watchful eye of Collision Repair Instructor Dan Norton, who himself graduated from the WWCC Collision Repair Program in 1977 and has many years of experience in the industry under his belt. He became an instructor at WWCC in 1994, beginning at the North Campus at the Washington State Penitentiary, then moving to the main campus in 2000.
As Norton explains it, the mission of WWCC’s Collision Repair program is to provide high-quality technical instruction in all aspects of auto body repair and painting, using the most current technologies. Students can obtain a one-year certificate, or they can graduate from the two-year program fully prepared to enter the collision repair industry and meet current industry skill standards. If, like Morales and Aguilar, students choose to also earn degrees in Automotive Repair Technology, they are able to complete their second degree in just one additional year.
All In A Day’s Work
The program does not specifically teach restoration work on classic cars, but for those who are interested in restoration, the skill set is essentially the same. In class students work on cars, vans, and light trucks. And although many students are initially interested in the program because they like to paint, Norton emphasizes that painting is just a part of the collision repair process.
“In this job you’re going to get dirty,” he says. “It’s going to be hot work, dirty work, and you need to like to work with your hands. But there’s a lot of gratification in it, because you can see your accomplishments, how you’ve made a huge difference in repairing damage. We’re the artists of the mechanical world. We shape things.”
A Wealth Of Opportunities
Although collision repair has traditionally been seen as “man’s work,” Norton emphasizes that “female grads have a lot of advantages. Women typically see color better than men do, and color-matching is a big part of what we do. And women tend to be more fastidious, plus they have a tendency to be more detail-oriented.”
And there’s plenty of work to go around. “Collision repair shops are crying for people,” says Norton. “Shops are very happy with the graduates of this program. Typical starting pay with a one-year certificate is $12-$13 per hour, and $15-$18 with a degree.”
While most students in the program are high school graduates, it’s possible to complete a degree without having finished high school. However, “It’s a thinking person’s game,” according to Norton. “The student has to be able to decipher technical jargon, read technical manuals, search online to find the information they need to do repairs, and it requires a lot of critical thinking.”
Students Who Succeed
Ricky Aguilar is an inspirational example of a successful student who didn’t graduate from high school. WWCC has a campus at the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center, where he was an inmate. There he first enrolled in a course in graphic design. “Even though I loved graphic design I didn’t think it was going to give me a marketable skill for when I got out,” he remembers. When WWCC started the automotive program at Coyote Ridge he took the first year of Automotive Repair Technology, while working as a teaching assistant in both the automotive and graphic design programs.
He got out on work release in 2015 and found a job at Bob’s Automotive in Kennewick, then got his financial aid set up and enrolled on the WWCC main campus for the winter quarter of 2016. He went to school all day, drove to Kennewick mid-afternoon to work, got home at 8:00 or 9:00 p.m., did his homework, slept, and did it all again.
Both students credit the quality of teaching the program provides for their success. “Dan Norton is just incredible. He has so much to offer,” says Oscar Morales. “Even though I’ve been working on cars since I was a kid, I just consumed everything he taught us. WWCC gave me a lot of confidence. I learned a lot about mechanics, how to pull frames, do certain types of body work, how to skin doors, and then I jumped into the field of automotive repair.”
After graduating from WWCC in 2011 and working stints at O’Reilly Auto Parts and Les Schwab in Walla Walla, Morales went to work at Checker’s Auto Body. From there his career began a meteoric rise. “I started there as a tech and slowly moved into the office,” he recalls, “because they could see how well I was able to communicate with customers and talk with insurance companies. I ended up being the shop manager and I ran the shop for two and a half years. When I told them at Checker’s that I wanted to leave, to start my own business, they actually offered me part of the company so I would stay with them, but I just had to go. That was coming up on two years ago that I opened up Valley Rollerz Garage, and I haven’t looked back ever since.”
Currently Morales is in the planning stages of moving his business to Vancouver, WA, “because I want to do my business on a bigger level, all up and down the west coast. I just can’t stop. It’s definitely a lot of fun and I love it a lot.”
Ambition, persistence, hard work, fun, and success are the hallmarks of the graduates of WWCC’s Collision Repair program. If you are interested in becoming a car whisperer yourself, or in hiring someone who can whisper to your customer’s cars, contact Dan Norton at 509-527-4569 or [email protected]