ALLDATA, an online source for automotive information and manufacturers’ diagnostic & repair information, recently published an article on the Skyline College Automotive Program on their website. The article is shared below:

This summer, ALLDATA met with Thomas Broxholm, the program coordinator of the automotive program at Skyline College in San Bruno, CA. We were able to talk a little about his background, the program, and the future of automotive education. Read our interview with him below:

Thomas Broxholm, Skyline College Automotive Program Coordinator

ALLDATA: We want to learn about the Skyline College automotive program. But first, let’s start with some questions about you; how long have you been in the automotive industry?

BROXHOLM: Not counting my high school automotive experience, I’ve been in the industry since 1974, which is about 42 years.

ALLDATA: And what made you want to become an automotive instructor?

BROXHOLM: There were two main reasons. One, I discovered that I enjoyed helping coworkers and explaining stuff to them. I was pretty good at putting things into simple terms so that they could understand it, which made me feel like I had a knack for it.

The other reason was when I was younger, I used to think about how my job would affect my body as I got older. Those two things steered me towards the education part of the industry, especially when I got an opportunity to try teaching and found out that I really liked it.

ALLDATA: Was that opportunity with Skyline College or somewhere else?

BROXHOLM: No, that was before Skyline College. I started my teaching career at City College of San Francisco back in 1986. They needed a substitute teacher for a semester and basically, they said, here’s a book, here’s a class – learn to teach. I got some training on how to teach career technical education at the UC Berkeley extension, but that was after I was thrown into the deep end.

After that semester of substituting for City College of San Francisco, they hired me part-time teaching night classes. I’d go to work during the day as a technician, and then go to City College and teach at night. About three years later, I got hired at Skyline College to teach night classes part-time. Then, about three years after that, they hired me full-time. All in all, I have about 33 years at Skyline College.

ALLDATA: What courses have you taught in your 30+ years at Skyline College?

BROXHOLM: My specialty, when I first started teaching, was electrical. I started part-time with the electrical class, but when I got hired full-time, I was actually teaching a Japanese technology program. That was a two-year program, and every semester we taught a new subject. For example, I would teach brakes one semester and engines another semester. And that was fine, except when you’re teaching a different subject every semester, it gets a bit challenging to specialize.

I taught that class for about two years, until I took a position to teach transmissions and drivelines every semester. While transmissions and drivelines weren’t my specialty, it would give me an opportunity to really focus on one specific subject and get really good at it. I took as many professional development courses as I could to bring my skillset to a higher level. Then over the years, with the experience of teaching and hands on practice, I learned the drivetrain area to the specialist that I am now.

ALLDATA:To switch gears a little bit, what would you tell a recent high school graduate who is deciding between technical/vocational school versus a more conventional college path?

BROXHOLM: The standard education pathway is not really for everyone. The trades can be a great career, whether it’s automotive, plumbing, electrical or construction. You don’t necessarily need a college degree to be able to earn a great living wage, support a family and contribute to society.

You also get a lot of pride and sense of accomplishment in doing this kind of job. You’re able to tackle a problem using your mind, and then get to use your hands to work on things. You’re not stuck sitting in a chair at a desk all day long. I feel like that is really rewarding, personally and mentally.

Now, what a lot of automotive programs have are state-issued certificates. In our program, each of our classes earns students a certificate, which means they have the opportunity to earn up to six certificates. This is quite special; most programs only offer one, maybe two certificates.

Going for the automotive certificates with our program means that over a three-year span, it’ll cost approximately $7,000. You compare that to the high cost of getting a four-year degree, or even the cost of a private institute. With us, you’re not heavily in debt at the completion of your education.

Our program also offers paid internships ranging between $20-26 an hour. And in the Bay Area, experienced technicians are earning roughly $38-$42 a flat-rate hour. So, we have technicians in the Bay Area at $42 an hour that work a 40-hour week but are actually getting paid for 60-70 hours, which is a pretty decent living wage. 

ALLDATA: Tell us more about these internships. Are they just for opportunities in the Bay Area?

BROXHOLM: Yes, we have a ton of employers in the Bay Area associated with the college and value education. They will work with us and our students so that the students can go to school and also go to work. We can do 100% employment for the students without a problem.

ALLDATA: That’s awesome. Before we dive into the program details, I have one more question. What changes have you noticed to the industry and what are some of the biggest obstacles you foresee in the years to come?

BROXHOLM: Back in 1974, transistorized radios were the biggest thing on the market. Cars were really simple. So, these computer controls, networking systems in cars, ADAS systems, hybrids, and electric vehicles, all this stuff is huge changes in our industry. And one of the biggest obstacles is, first of all, we have to get the public to understand that these are highly sophisticated vehicles and the people working on your vehicle, they’re not just mechanics anymore. These are technicians that have to have a highly skilled education to be able to understand and fix these computer controls and networking systems. We have to change the perception, so people know that the automotive industry is a great hands-on career and a highly skilled area.

Unfortunately, there’s a technician shortage. And part of that is because of the pay scale. Highly skilled technicians need to be paid decent wages, or they’ll go do something else.

ALLDATA: Awesome, thank you. Now to the Skyline Automotive Program questions. To start us off: when was the program established?

BROXHOLM: We’ve been training technicians for over 45 years. Before 1977, Skyline College was actually an aviation program for airplane mechanics. But in ’77, it basically converted over to an automotive training program.

ALLDATA: Oh interesting. What specific courses does your automotive program offer?

BROXHOLM: Our main focus is automotive technology. We focus in on all eight automotive areas of ASE certification. That includes electrical, brakes, steering and suspension, transmissions, drivelines, manual/automatic, HVAC, and engine repair and performance. We also do the advance engine performance, smog and L1 classes.

We don’t do any heavy-duty truck or body/fender. We don’t have HD diesel, although we do offer a light-duty diesel class in the evening from time to time.

ALLDATA: Do you use ALLDATA in your curriculum at all? Or do you use other programs?

BROXHOLM: Yes, we use ALLDATA. We actually offer ALLDATA and your competitor, Mitchell 1, but I would say the students and myself lean towards ALLDATA. There have been a few things that I’ve found that worked really well when I use Mitchell 1, but for the most part, almost all the students bring up ALLDATA first.

ALLDATA: That’s great to hear. How many students are currently enrolled? Has that number changed over the years?

BROXHOLM: We’ve had some pretty big changes, especially if we want to compare before COVID and after COVID.

Before COVID, we had six full-time teachers, each with a 15-unit class, which is the maximum college load that most people will take. Every semester we would teach all six of those classes, which would have enrollments between 22-24 students each. We also had three fundamentals classes and they would all be pretty close to full between 20-26 students. Additionally, we would offer somewhere between two to three evening classes with about 16-22 students. Add that all up, that’s roughly between 220-290 students each semester.

But after COVID has been a struggle. First of all, we’re down two instructors and we were not authorized to replace them. We’re at four full-time instructors, and we’ve been using a part-time instructor to cover the fifth class. Now we teach five full 15-unit classes every semester, but enrollment is somewhere between, 10-15 students. Occasionally we have a class of 20, but this is still a severe reduction in enrollment.  

Fundamentals classes didn’t take quite as bad of a hit, but we’re down from three fundamentals classes to only two this semester. Night classes are also down to approximately 12-14 students if we’re lucky. We’re probably down a good 50%, mostly because of COVID, though industry change may also be impacting enrollment. It’s been tough, but this is not just at Skyline College. This is a problem everywhere. We’re working on rebuilding, but it looks it’s going to be a slow process.

ALLDATA: What makes Skyline College different than other technical or automotive trade schools?

BROXHOLM: One thing that I think is really unique about our program is that it’s three full years, when most are one-to-two-year programs. The instructors, like myself, pretty much teach one subject every semester which offers a very specialized education.

During the semester, students are entirely immersed in one subject, which translates to a ton of hands-on lab experience. We have about a hundred cars of different years, makes, and models for the students learn on. Our goal is if they’re going to learn on something and potentially break something, we’d rather they do it on our training vehicles than when they get out into the industry. 

We also have sponsorships with Ford, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, Subaru, Audi, and Infiniti. So, any student that wishes to be specialized in a manufacturer or product line will get access to their online training. We try to incorporate some of the factory technology and information from those programs into every class.

It’s a unique program. The way it’s laid out, students go four days a week, 20 hours a week. COVID did affect that a little bit, but I think it is for the better. Before COVID, we always used to say, you know, no way you can teach automotive online, you have to be in person. And yeah, all the labs need to be in person, but we’ve found a sweet spot where we can implement some online training into the schedule and reduce their in-person classes by a day. This gives students the flexibility with their time to go to work or have an internship.

It’s been a big success. The overwhelming majority of the students feel the quality of the education has not diminished and they like that extra flexibility, while still being able to come to campus and engage in the hands-on portion of the class.

ALLDATA: What’s the program’s greatest achievement?

BROXHOLM: There is one thing that sticks out that I’m really proud of. A few years back, before COVID, the state chancellor’s office surveyed programs across the community colleges and they gave them up to three stars. You got a star if over 70% of your graduates reported earning a living wage, another star was for your employment rate, and the third was for program growth.

We got two stars. The first was for 80% of our graduates earning a living wage, and the second was for having 100% employment. Unfortunately, at the time that they took the survey, our program was impacted, so there was no room for growth for us and we didn’t get a star for that.

But we were the only automotive program in the entire state of California that got the two stars. Other programs would get one for this or one for that, but no one else got the two. To me, that validates what we’re doing and how we’re doing it and makes me feel really good about our program.

ALLDATA: How do you see the Skyline automotive program changing in the next 5-10 years and what challenges do you expect to face?

BROXHOLM: Well, we’ve got ADAS coming in, we’ve got EV vehicles coming in. We’ve got even a bigger influx of hybrids. I still see us having internal combustion engines around for some time yet but bringing in all of this new technology means we have to find a way to incorporate it into what we currently teach.

Other schools can be very modular. If you have an electrical class, it may be 30-40 hours compared to our 180 hours of the same class. This means they have a much smaller section with less time to teach, it’s easier for them to squeeze in a class specifically for ADAS or EV.

But at Skyline, every course is pretty much self-contained. For example, students don’t need to take our electrical class to take transmissions, because there is transmission-specific electrical content in the class. So, the changes we need to make isn’t to simply add these classes. We need to incorporate this information and technology into our current curriculum.

And we’re working on it. We’re making major changes, plus working on an additional class to do a deep dive into these new technologies.

ALLDATA: You mentioned you have a bunch of cars for your students to practice on. Are you able to get EVs, hybrids or any cars with a lot of ADAS technology?

BROXHOLM: Yes. Nissan is one of our partners, and that’s one of the manufacturers that provides us with those types of cars. From them, we have two Nissan Leafs, which are full EV. We also have a really old EV Toyota RAV4. For our hybrid training, we have quite a few Priuses. We also have a Ford Escape hybrid, and we have a Honda hybrid that we use.

A lot of our vehicles, particularly the Nissans, have various levels of ADAS with cameras and radar systems. We also have a fairly new Mercedes-Benz that was donated to us with some heavy ADAS on it. Subaru donated some vehicles, and a couple of them have the Subaru EyeSight® feature.

So, we have the cars, and I actually have a class about ADAS on the books. Right now, my biggest challenge is I can’t offer the class yet because I can’t find the funding to buy the calibration equipment. When you calibrate a car’s advanced systems, there’s a certain amount of open space you need around the car in order to actually do the calibration. Lucky for us, I had someone come out to determine whether we have the space around the car to do the proper calibration. It would be a little bit tight, and certain calibrations we might have to do outside, but it could work once we get the funding for the equipment.

ALLDATA: You already briefly talked about the instructors you have, but do you have any tips or tricks that you use to find qualified instructors?

BROXHOLM: We do try to grow from within, so when a student goes through our program, and we think they might have potential, we’ll try to plant the teaching seed.

Currently, we have a young, female instructor who went through our program a few years back. I presented her with an opportunity this summer for teaching a fundamentals class, and she seems to really enjoy it. There’s also an older gentleman who took classes with us in the evening, and he reached out a few years back about getting into teaching. So, we’ve given him some teaching training and he’s going to be doing a brakes class at night for us this upcoming fall. We’re going to be mentoring these two for the next few years. The older gentleman wants to teach part-time, but hopefully the young lady will get into full-time teaching.

It’s really tough to find qualified full-time teachers because we typically require teaching experience of some kind. We want someone that’s taught a part-time class, at least a couple of times, in addition to field experience and a degree. Plus, to qualify to teach, the state requires about three to five years of work experience with an A.S. degree, and if you have a B.A. degree, I believe it’s two years’ worth of work experience.

However, there’s something called equivalency to help with the degree part. If you don’t have an A.S. degree, at least you can apply for equivalency. That’s what I did; I got through equivalency and mine was pretty easy, but that was because it was a long time ago. It’s not as easy to get equivalency anymore. But that’s why a degree is so essential.

We’ve been trying to hire an instructor for a brake and chassis class since COVID hit back in 2020, and our applicant pool is typically somewhere around three to five qualified applicants. It’s really a specialized field and there are technicians out there that know what they’re doing and would be good teachers, but they never completed an A.S. degree. But if they start out young and they knock out that degree right off the bat, it’s sitting in their back pocket, ready to be used if they need it someday.

ALLDATA: Have you noticed any changes in students or applicants in your program over the years? For example, do they have different goals, has the age range changed, do they tend to have prior schooling or not?

BROXHOLM: A significant thing that has changed over the years is that 15-20 years ago, students that came into the automotive program had a little more hands-on experience than they do currently. They tinkered with things at home, they took things apart, they helped a relative work on the car or lawnmower, etc. Students had a little more confidence and dexterity.

Now, we’re getting a lot more students that really don’t have that experience. For example, just being able to turn a screwdriver with one hand is a new skill set to them, or even understanding what clockwise and counterclockwise is.

This shift in these experience levels adds complexity to our lessons. If we get a student that took high school automotive or has the experience, I’m excited because their level is above the other students. But at the same time, as a teacher, I need to be able to teach all levels. And it’s challenging, it’s fun. I need to be equitable and make sure I’m properly dividing my attention and providing the same opportunities without any kind of roadblock to all students.

ALLDATA: Thank you again for taking the time to talk to us, and good luck with the upcoming school year.

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