Aerial view of the Dowagiac campus

Auto students visiting Chicago car show

Southwestern Michigan College automotive students are heading for the nation’s largest auto show Feb. 12 at McCormick Place in Chicago.

“It lets students see new technologies and reinforces what we try to impress upon them as far as how technologically advanced everything is,” according to automotive instructor Thomas “Rock” Ruthsatz. “It takes technical aptitude. It’s not a grease monkey’s profession anymore. We have great support from dealers because we’ve built great relationships by sending them good entry-level technicians. To best serve our students, we need to best serve the industry. The biggest reason dealers dismiss technicians is because they don’t show up on time or they don’t show up at all, so we incorporate intangibles such as reliability and responsibility into our curriculum to make sure students who come out of here are going to be good workers for somebody.”

“There aren’t radios in cars anymore,” Ruthsatz said. “It’s actually an operating system. Some use a Windows-based entertainment system. We show our students what they’ll be working on when they graduate. There are so many possibilities for a student to go with once they graduate this program, and we try to make them aware of that. They’re not going to be a Ford, Chevy or Dodge mechanic. There are 40 different companies they can work for,” Ruthsatz said. “There are three Volkswagen dealers in the relatively immediate area.”
SMC’s automotive program can lead to a one-year certificate, a two-year associate degree or four-year degrees from Ferris State University in marketing or management.
Chicago will be “a whirlwind trip. We take off here about 8:30 in the morning and get back about 4:30 in the evening, which gives us about 3 ½ hours there. By the time you’ve been there three hours, you’re pretty much exhausted. Companies unveil new showstopper stuff in Detroit, but Chicago is where companies tend to bring everything.”

SMC first exposed Ruthsatz to the big, wide world a marquee auto show represents.

“I went when I was a student here in 1999-2001,” he said. “As a faculty member (for nine years), I remembered how much I enjoyed it and looked forward to it. It’s kind of an eye-opener when you see how big this industry really is. I was somewhat sheltered coming from this area. I knew of three or four local dealerships and that was about it. There’s a big world out there with lots of opportunities available, which we hope to impress upon our students. I encourage students to talk to employers they might be interested in working for. I’ve got a former student who’s in Seattle right now, training to be an underwater welder” after working on Raptor stealth fighters in the military.

“I loved cars, but had no idea what I wanted to do when I graduated high school,” he said. “Even when I was wrenching — and I still wrench at garages in the summers to keep up to date — I always felt like there was something missing. I always wanted to do more. When the opportunity came up to teach, I thought that was up my alley.

“I enjoy students like (David Baltazar, the 2009 Buchanan graduate who coupled the automotive program with communications and landed an internship with Chip Ganassi Motor Sports’ racing team in Charlotte, N.C.) because it shows other students the opportunities available. Whatever you want to do, go do it. We’ll help you get there.”