CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Chanel Taylor helps with repairs at the Cutter Automotive Group dealership in Ala Moana. As a high school student, Taylor was one of the first graduates of the Auto Academy at Honolulu Community College. She's finishing her degree at HCC while working full time at Cutter, one of the few women in the field.
Auto Academy revs up young talent
A partnership gives promising mechanics a leg up in the field
Once she started tinkering with cars, Chanel Taylor knew she had found her calling. Her mom had doubts, though.
"My mother was against my professional career choice at first, but she saw that I was passionate about it," Taylor said. "I fixed her car and she was really happy."
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Tony Cabalar, left, Erwin Young, Michael Wang and Jace Gonzales change the oil in a car at Honolulu Community College.
One of the first students chosen to attend the Auto Academy at Honolulu Community College five years ago, Taylor entered a mostly male world.
"At first they didn't know what to do with me. They only had a boys' bathroom."
Through the program, Taylor worked at a Cutter Automotive Group dealership and was immediately hired once that internship ended. She's considered a full-time helper and looks forward to finishing the HCC automotive program in May and being allowed to do more hands-on tasks. Taylor graduated from Kaimuki High School in 2005.
She still uses an "out-of-area" bathroom, and says it can be hard working in a field where there are not many "girls."
"I'm one of the guys - I need to have that mentality. When I need to maintain my feminine side, I go hang out with other women in the office."
The Auto Academy gave Taylor a glimpse of what to expect at HCC. "The automotive program is very stressful. We cram so much information into a short period of time and take both written and practical exams. If you don't pass the class, you can't move on."
Among the skills that the program emphasized: teamwork. "You need to learn to do things fast, using accurate and safe shortcuts, so we definitely help each other."
Students selected for the Auto Academy are given a tool kit worth $2,000 to $3,000 (funded through First Hawaiian Bank) and are paid minimum wage for the hours that they intern at Cutter. Funding has been set to cover the program through the 2012 school year.
The students also earn college credits that give them a better chance at entering HCC's competitive automotive mechanic technology department.
That's the path Stephen Balias hopes to follow. A 2008 McKinley High School graduate, he said the Auto Academy is giving him a jump-start on college. He graduates from the academy program tomorrow.
"We are gaining hands-on experience. I learn new things every day," he said. "It was challenging to give up my summer, but I'm getting college credits."
Tony Cabalar, a senior at Aiea High School, is unsure of his career path, but his teacher recommended the program. "My teacher said it was a golden opportunity, so I took it," Cabalar said. "I may do something else, but can use this as a Plan B and a hobby, too."
Mark Silliman, dean of Tech I at HCC, said the Auto Academy helps students who might not otherwise be able to afford such training or the necessary tools.
"Many of these kids' parents didn't go to college. These families don't always have the economic resources. ... If you are an ace mechanic, but don't have the resources needed, all that talent goes to waste," Silliman said.
"They also get past the fear factor. College can be intimidating. The program breaks down those barriers. It's a win-win situation for everybody. Students get an opportunity for secondary education, and businesses get to groom the next generation of auto technicians."