DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Above, Auto Academy students Tony Cabalar, left, Jace Gonzales, Erwin Young and Michael Wang go over their checklist before they change the oil in a car at Honolulu Community College.
The Auto Academy teaches Oahu students useful and potentially lucrative skills
The Japanese anime program "Initial D," about street racing along mountain passes, was the inspiration that Michael Wang needed to get into auto mechanics.
"The teens in the program talk about modifying their cars, like changing the ride height of the car," Wang said. "I looked up what they were talking about on the Internet and learned how to take care of a car."
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Instructor Noel Alarcon, facing the camera, works with Erwin Young, left, Michael Wang and Norman Juan. The students are among 10 enrolled in a summer program to learn auto maintenance and repair.
Wang's unsure whether he'll pursue his interest as a hobby or a career, but so far it has landed him a spot in the Auto Academy, a six-week internship designed as an introduction to the field of auto mechanics.
The academy, a collaboration of Cutter Automotive Group, First Hawaiian Bank and Honolulu Community College, began five years ago with students from Waipahu High School. It has expanded to include all Title I schools, which have a high percentage of at-risk students. Applicants are chosen through a rigorous process based on parental commitment, interviews and teacher recommendations.
The academy helps students prepare for high-paying jobs in the field, training that few high schools still offer, explained Bert Shimabukuro, division chairman of the Transportation & Trade Technologies department at Honolulu Community College.
"It takes a lot of money to maintain an auto shop and to meet the safety requirements," he said. At the same time, increased academic requirements are "squeezing out the electives."
Auto technicians will always be in demand, Shimabukuro said. "We will always have lots of cars, whether the economy is good, bad or otherwise. In a good economy, lots of new cars need to be serviced. In a bad economy, we keep the clunkers going."
Jace Gonzales, a senior at Farrington High School, recalls as a kid watching his dad work on automobiles, and occasionally lending a hand. As a member of the academy, he works along trained auto technicians at Cutter dealerships. "It's good experience to learn how to manage in the work force and to work on live cars," Gonzales said.
The students are paid as they learn, but Gonzales said it's the "experience and knowledge that are important."
For Richard Matsumoto, a Farrington senior, giving up his last summer of high school was tough, but this is the career path he hopes to follow. "This program gives me a head start. I'm trying to learn whatever I can now."
These students, along with seven others - Jerome Aquiat, Stephen Balais, Tony Cabalar, Justin Hayashi, Norman Juan, Aaron Osalvo and Erwin Young - graduate from the program tomorrow.
Instructor Noel Alarcon teaches the students how to use equipment, shop safety and maintenance and service (including paperwork and repair orders). "They basically run their own repair shops," said Alarcon.
It's much more than handy skills that are learned, he added. "We work on self-confidence and building self-esteem. I want them to do their best no matter what they do. They can use these teachings anywhere else."