By Abra Bennett
Writer in Residence, Walla Walla Community College
There was a time, not so very long ago, when people could do a lot of the work on their own cars. Today, however, the average car is run by dozens of computers that control almost every function of our vehicles.
“The technology in this business changes pretty much daily,” explained Jim Haun, an instructor in the WWCC program. “At this very minute there’s an engineer in Detroit who’s dreaming up some new system that our students will have to work on.”
“When I came here in 2000 we were teaching students how to work on carburetors,” he added. “Now cars are all fuel injection. During that same period alternative fuel vehicles have evolved greatly – compressed natural gas, electric vehicles, and hybrids. We’re one of only two colleges in the state that teaches hybrid battery reconditioning, so our graduates have skills that most other students starting out in the industry don’t have.”
Haun continued: “People think ‘if you can’t do anything else, at least you can be a mechanic.’ But it takes two full years of school just to learn the basics.”
Zach Doty, the owner of Walla Walla Transmission and a 1997 graduate of WWCC’s Automotive Repair Technology program, is part of the team of automotive professionals making the transition from the old ways to the new.
After graduation from DeSales High School in 1995 he enrolled in the automotive program at WWCC. While a student there he worked part time at the Nissan dealership, where he got a lot of instruction and mentoring from fellow technicians.
He worked there for 13 years, until 2010, when he bought Walla Walla Transmission from Richard Hellie, who had been one of his WWCC instructors. Although the business retains its original name, under Doty’s ownership it’s evolved into a full service repair shop.
“Things have changed really fast in the past 10 years,” Doty said. “Now some Ford/GM vehicles have 10-speed automatic transmissions, and a lot of them have six speeds. Because the cost to overhaul a transmission on a car that’s more than 10 years old is prohibitive, people trade them in when the transmission is shot. So now we work on every part of the vehicle. The only thing we don’t do is tires and alignments. And we work on pretty much all makes and models, imported and domestic.”
In another sign of the times his shop subscribes to several online service manuals and call-in help lines, where he can get advice about difficult repair problems. There’s even a crowd-sourced support resource, where subscribers fill out an online form describing how they resolved various problems, so that readers can benefit from each other’s experience with repairs.
Doty has also been a member of the program’s Advisory Board since 2001. From that vantage point he can observe the inner workings of the program, as well as help shape them.
“One of the things I really like about the WWCC program is that the students have to study math and English, job psychology, and job seeking skills. Those are very important once they graduate,” Doty said.
“This career path provides a lot of opportunity but it doesn’t get the credit that it deserves,” he added. “People don’t understand how much knowledge it takes to be in this field today. It’s not just wrenches and hammers and pry bars anymore – it’s a lot of computers. And cars are changing very quickly, so there’s a lot of reading involved and a lot of training, just to stay current with what’s going on in the field.”
And, he observed, “Young people today have the habit of a narrow focus on their devices, and don’t always pay attention to what’s going on around them. That can be dangerous in this business.”
As a current student in the WWCC program, Zach Paine came to the same conclusion. “I knew that without a degree or certificate I wouldn’t get very far in the automotive world,” he said. “When I had to sit in class all day long in high school I was really bored, but the program here keeps me entertained, doing real-life work. And I like the people I’m here with; we all work together and help each other.”
“This is hard work,” Doty emphasized. “You really need to make a commitment, to make it your life. I see this as a career where you can make a very good living, but it’s not a job where you can just show up and put in your time. You have to be self-motivated if you’re going to succeed.”
But for the graduates the prospects are good. “Every auto shop in town is looking for a technician right now,” said Doty. “Every shop in every town is looking for a good technician.”