Former Vatterot student continues dream at Southwest

George Smallwood

George Smallwood’s passion for cars led him to Southwest’s automotive service technology program. He wants to open his own repair shop someday.

Herman Armstrong had completed one year of classes in the automotive repair technician program at Vatterot Career College when he learned the institution was closing. The for-profit college abruptly shut down all of its campuses nationwide last December, leaving students scrambling to find alternatives to continue their education. Armstrong’s sister was a Southwest graduate who told him about the College’s automotive program and encouraged him to enroll.

“Southwest offers a quality program. I love it here,” Armstrong said. “And I don’t mind starting over to make sure I learn everything I need to know.”

Sixteen new students enrolled in the Associate of Applied Science program this fall and the numbers are continuing to increase. Automotive Service Technology Program Coordinator and Instructor George “Buddy” Bonner said, “We are up by about ten percent from last year.”

Bonner enjoys teaching students how to troubleshoot a vehicle from the ground up. Most students enter the program with little to no knowledge of how an engine works, and leave with all the skills needed to find an entry-level job as an automotive repair technician.

First-year student George Smallwood recently earned an industrial engineering and management degree from Southern Illinois University, but enrolled in the automotive service technology program because he has a passion for cars. “I’m working on an automotive technology degree so I can open up my own shop,” he said.

Instructor George “Buddy” Bonner demonstrates how to disassemble a harmonic balancer in his automotive engine lab.

Instructor George “Buddy” Bonner demonstrates how to disassemble a harmonic balancer in his automotive engine lab.

Smallwood applied to Southwest because the program has a good reputation and he did not want to relocate to get his automotive degree. Smallwood stated, “I read about the program and saw what the students were learning and I decided Southwest would be my best choice.”

As the demand for certified automotive technicians in Memphis and nationwide continues to rise, graduates can earn a good living with a degree in automotive technology. Mechanics in Memphis earn, on average, nearly $37,000 a year. “If you get an associate degree and all of your ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) certification, you will add $10 dollars an hour to your check. Instead of starting at $17, you start at $27 an hour,” Bonner stated.

Jesus Garcia, who graduated in May 2018, started his career at an independent repair shop, Elite Service, and now works for Raleigh Tire doing diagnostic work, wheel alignments, and shocks and struts. Garcia credits Southwest’s automotive program for making him more marketable to employers by providing a quality education with training on up-to-date equipment. Garcia said, “Having that credential lets them know that you are interested in going further. Not many technicians have an associate degree.”