Getting Schooled – Education Opportunities in the Hot Rod Industry
Lead Photo courtesy of Bearded Mug Media/Piston Foundation
Hot rodding was born through passion. It’s the outgrowth of admiration for cars and trucks, whether through their mechanical and engineering features, a restoration, or a hopped-up vehicle with modifications to look or perform better. To most, messing around with cars is a hobby but for some who are really intrigued and passionate about anything on four wheels, it can also be a career.
A career in hot rodding? You can make a living playing with cars?
Maybe not by simply “playing” with cars, but there are plenty of opportunities within the automotive industry for young adults and the next generation to pursue a career in the automotive industry. There are many potential career paths, and we’re not just talking about engineering and design. We’re talking mechanics, body and paint techs, custom metal fabricators, and electrical experts. There are also opportunities on the business management side of things, even marketing and media positions.
From dealerships and independent repair facilities to the hot rod and custom shops that we see at events across the country, there are a wide range of opportunities for young adults – especially for those who share a passion for classic and specialty vehicles.
Like any professional field, getting educated is the first step toward getting started in the automotive field. Some paths might require four-year bachelor’s degrees, but many employers know those aren’t for everybody. Fortunately, there are a lot of different programs available to young adults that provide a certificate, diploma, or even an associate degree through courses designed to give them the understanding and skill set to kick-off a career path in body and paint, mechanical work, or in the restoration and modification side of the hot rodding world.
And guess what? There are custom shops, engine builders, interior pros, and restorations shops ready to hire young people right out of their school or training programs. We hear a lot builders and aftermarket companies grumble that they can’t find any trained, eager young people ready to set a foundation for a career in the hot rod industry. However, we also learned there are a lot of kids and young adults that are currently involved in automotive training.
George Arrants, vice president of the ASE Education Foundation, gave us a few eye-opening statistics. “There are currently over 50,000 students in over 2,000 ASE-accredited high school or college automotive classes right now,” Arrants said, “Most of these students go into a dealership or independent repair facility right out of their studies.”
This is great news for the automotive industry as a whole, but how do these young men and women learn about the performance and hot rod and restoration aftermarket, which can require a different skill set (and is definitely a lot more fun)?
The ASE Education Foundation and Goodguys recently formed a partnership to help show the wide array of career paths available in the world of hot rodding and automotive performance. On Fridays at select Goodguys National events, interested students will be able to meet with a panel of industry professionals to learn more about hot rod businesses and spend the day checking out different aspects of the industry at the event.
Jack Weaver, the owner of ACME Chop Shop in Grand Junction, Colorado, also recognized the need for young hot rodding talent in his shop and went on to form Kustom Built Cars Educational Workshop. This 501(C)(3) non-profit Workshop is a five-month certificate program that immerses students into the real world of building hot rods from the frame up, including project evaluation and planning, rust repair and metal work, paint and color sanding and basics in suspension, electrical and engine performance.
Central Carolina Community College in Sanford, North Carolina, offers an Auto Restoration Technology where students receive extensive hands-on training in a variety of subjects such as metal working, fabrication, painting, upholstery, electrical systems, engines, woodworking, and welding. They also receive instruction on the historical significance of vehicle designs and structure. They offer a two-semester program for a certificate or three-semester option for a diploma in Auto Restoration which includes courses covering engines and welding along with classes in communication, conceptual physics, and math – each an important part of the job.
“There are a lot of opportunities with restoration capabilities,” explained Craig Ciliberto, department chair of transportation at CCCC. “We have students finding jobs all over North Carolina of course, but also across the country.” And remember, if a student’s passion lies elsewhere, such as in aviation, motorcycles, or other transportation areas, they will be well trained in mechanical restoration which can carry over to other fields.
Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, Michigan, offers an Auto Body Fabrication and Chassis Design Certificate that focuses on advanced body and paint techniques used in customizing cars. The program has emphasis in chassis design, metal fab, welding, custom paint and working with composite materials.
The Washtenaw students have been lucky enough to work with the team at Shadow Rods, a hot rod company that manufactures steel bodies and related components. Together, they’ve been a major part of two complete hot rods builds in the last couple years – one that even scored a Goodguys Feature Pick during the Goodguys 2022 Summit Racing Nationals in Columbus, OH.
Another hands-on approach to learning the trade is the Hot Rod Institute in Rapid City, South Dakota. The private school offers an accredited diploma program that also immerses the students into a real hot rod shop environment. The 18-month program covers everything from chassis fabrication through sheet metal, refinishing, upholstery, and mechanical work, with a goal of providing a specialized education to students so they can go on to achieve their own success in the specialty automotive industry. Hot Rod Institute also has a full professional build shop, The Hot Rod Shop at HRI, which sometimes gives HRI graduates the opportunity to work in all aspects of building award-winning hot rods.
HRI President Doug LaRue said there is a high demand for their graduates within custom build shops. “Our students get a high level of hands-on training for the high-end hot rod shops, so not only do they understand the build process, but know what to expect and how to work as a team member,” Doug said. “We’ve had students even go out and start their own shop.”
One notable school that offers a two- or four-year degree program in automotive restoration technology is at McPherson College in McPherson, Kansas. The program places emphasis on historic automotive technology, restoration management and design, automotive communications, and restoration technology. In the last couple years students have been able to take part in the concours restoration of a 1953 Mercedes-Benz 300 S Cabriolet with the goal of showing it at the Pebble Beach Concours d ’Elegance this year. What an opportunity!
The University of Northwestern Ohio is also known for its automotive programs, including Automotive and Diesel Technology as well as a High Performance Motorsports degree program. Each program features hands-on training with courses focused on electrical, suspension and steering, brakes and engine performance, engine control systems, drivetrains, and more. The UNOH High Performance program also includes welding, engine machining and custom building, fabrication, and more. Plus, there are opportunities to get involved in racing with the school.
For those who are really intrigued by engines and want to concentrate on racing and the art of machine work, the School of Automotive Machinists & Technology in Houston, Texas, may be the answer. SAM Tech offers programs and degrees in Engine Block and Cylinder Head Machining, CNC Machining, and EFI Tuning, all of which are based on performance and racing to prepare students for a career in the motorsports arena.
WyoTech, based in Laramie, Wyoming, offers three different core programs including Automotive Technology, Collision and Refinishing, along with a Diesel program. These six-month programs provide hands-on experience and the knowledge needed to begin a career as an automotive tech, but Wyotech also offers several specialty programs that will give students a better understanding of the hot rod side of auto tech. The school’s three-month programs include Chassis Fabrication, Trim and Upholstery, Street Rod, and High Performance Powertrains.
Universal Technical Institute currently has four tech schools with 16 different campuses and can provide an education in automotive tech in less than a year. UTI offers specialized training in specific OEM brands and even offers an exclusive NASCAR-endorsed program at their Mooresville, North Carolina, campus. This unique program trains students in everything from engines, fabrication, and welding to aerodynamics and pit crew essentials.
Most college and continuing education programs feature hand-on classes with quite a bit of shop floor time built into the curriculum. But what about the young adults who are curious to learn more about what’s involved behind the scenes of a build or restoration before making a commitment to school?
If you think a career in customization and hot rod fabrication could be right for you, but would really like to dip a toe in pool to make sure it’s right for you, there are new Weekend Introduction Classes with the new Kindig Academy at Lincoln Tech. That’s right, the same Kindig It Design that hosts the popular Bitchin’ Rides TV show has developed a curriculum through Lincoln Tech that teaches master skills of hot rodding. Courses include a 2-day weekend instruction as well as a six-week Advanced Custom Vehicle Fabrication certificate course.
The six week course covers specialty welding, custom fabrication and part design, paining, chassis, exhaust fab and mechanical assembly. The weekend courses are 16-hours with four practices; TIG welding, metal shaping, automotive electrical and the basics of body work. The weekend programs are perfect to whet the appetite of someone looking to get a taste of automotive fabrication then to follow up with more training.
BASF is working on a program called Operative Talent with KTL Restorations and the Collision Repair Education Foundation that invites students between 16-23 years old to take part in the complete restoration of a 1969 Camaro. The finished car will be raffled off at SEMA 2023 to raise funds to promote the opportunities in the automotive industry. The goal is to show students not only the process of a full vehicle build, but also the many different disciplines involved and the opportunities available in the hot rod industry. BASF is just one of the many partners behind Operative Talent and they hope to expand the opportunity for young adults to work on these projects at other shops.
If you have an inkling for mechanical, metal crafting or anything automotive, we’re here to tell you the hot rod industry is a great place to work! Even if the hands-on side of hot rodding isn’t for you, there are still many opportunities to be involved. Accounting, social media, CAD design and 3D printing, technical writing, and video/photography are just a few of the no-wrench careers available in the performance aftermarket.
Keep in mind that this is nowhere near a complete list of automotive-related trade or specialty schools. Chances are there’s a quality program in your region to consider, or you can check into some of the programs at schools we’ve listed to see if they’re right for you or a younger person you know. Remember, do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life!
Scholarships and Apprentice Help
– Piston Foundation
Trade schools and college programs all cost money, but each program can help guide students to financial aid options and even scholarships. One group that is devoted to helping young adults become trained for a career in the restoration industry is the Piston Foundation.
“The Piston Foundation is a non-profit 501(C)(3) public charity with the goal of helping students build a career path into the automotive restoration industry,” explained Jeff Mason, the Foundation’s COO. “Whether it be a two- or four-year degree program, we focus on supporting kids that have a passion for and want to have a career in the collector car world.”
Last year the Foundation helped 10 students with scholarships for automotive programs, including several to McPherson College for their Automotive Restoration degree programs. The group also is planning an Apprentice Assistance program to help students, and the shops that hire them, through an apprentice program. “Students generally can’t afford to live off an apprentice wage and shops generally can’t afford to pay what the student needs,” Mason said. “Our apprentice program will help bridge that gap, so students are able to get the hands-on training and direction needed in a professional shop to further their education and talents.”
– SEMA Scholarships
The Specialty Automotive Manufacturers Association, best known as SEMA, has several programs to help with expenses for the next generation of enthusiasts and professionals. Each year they grant several scholarships, and for recent graduates that are employed by a SEMA member company, they offer a loan forgiveness program, as well. SEMA also has a list of other automotive-based scholarships available to students planning on a career in the automotive world.
Refining and Continuing Your Learning
You’re never too old to learn new techniques or lessons, whether it’s a fabrication skill, a fresh business model, or new software to implement. Technology never stops and neither should you! There are a great number of weekend or seasonal courses that can help you learn something new that may help your business down the road or improve your talent set to increase productivity or your position as a shop employee.
Here’s a quick look at just a few of the weekend courses we found with emphasis on the hot rod market.
– Ironworks Business Class
Looking to improve your shop’s efficiency, work with customers and improve the administrative elements of running a hot rod shop? Rodger Lee of Ironworks Speed and Kustom in Bakersfield, California, offers an intense two-day course covering the entire breakdown of a custom car shop from the front office to advertising and choosing customers. You’ll be side-by-side with other shop owners that are sharing many of the same challenges – while getting the direction of how to come out on top.
– Interior Work
Bitchin’ Stichin offers three-day custom upholstery classes covering subjects about the design and fabrication of custom consoles, seats, and door panels. The classes are taught by Justin Stephens of JS Custom Interiors and Phil Cato of Cato’s Custom Upholstery. The duo explains how their craft includes carpentry, electrical, metal fab, design, and vision along with problem solving.
– Metal Fab
Tinman’s Garage offers weekend Metal Shaping Workshops that have been developed to cover everyone’s skill set, from beginner to experienced fabricators. The two days are packed with basic principles and tips through advanced shaping processed and theory along with plenty of hands-on practice on power hammers, planishing hammers, Pullmax machines, and more. A great experience for the garage DIY hobbyist or up and coming pros.
Ron Covell has been helping students learn the art of metal forming since 1995 and continues to provide creative approaches to getting a job done – and done right. His one-day workshops are one-on-one, so you receive undivided attention with time to work on tools such as the English wheel, beading machine, planishing hammer, and more, or focus on layout and patterns, welding, or making bucks.
– Refinishing and Custom Touches
Paint technology continues to evolve and to stay on top of your game, you need to continue learning and stay up to date. The folks at PPG understand it can be hard to keep up with paint tech and applications, which is why they offer a variety of training programs at their Business Development Centers across the country. Classes and topics vary but after searching their Training Courses online we found a few that are perfect for custom painters including a two-day Restoration Seminar, Wood Grain Techniques, Basic Pinstriping, and a Lowrider Designs course. Learn new techniques right from the pros!
Learning With Goodguys
The first step for a high schooler to learn more about specialty automotive jobs might just come at a Goodguys event. The ASE Education Foundation and Goodguys recently teamed up to host Careers in Hot Rodding presentations at select Goodguys events, with the first one taking place at the 13th LMC Truck Spring Lone Star Nationals in Fort Worth, Texas. Students from several local high schools were invited to the event on Friday to listen to a panel discussion from industry professionals, enjoy a lunch provided by WyoTech, and experience the event with an industry mentor. It was a great way to give these young enthusiasts a little industry insight. Goodguys will be working with the ASE Education Foundation to host these gatherings at future events as a way to get the next generation more engaged.