‘Crank it up, Mr. Cathey’: Training to be a vehicle mechanic in an era of automation

Raymond Riley got his first car at the dawn of the century. It was an old Volvo. His dad’s friend was a master mechanic and came over to help revive the turbo station wagon.

“He didn’t do any work. He told me what to do. That got me started turning wrenches,” Riley said.

As a kid, Riley loved the Jetsons and Radio Shack and seemed born to figure things out. But the tragedies and joys of life drew him from the path he expected. He left technical college to care for his father, who was dying of cancer. And he had three beautiful girls — ages 9, 8 and 5 — who needed him.

So it was that he found himself, at age 35, back in a Northeast Washington classroom on a cool December day, surrounded by a dismantled alternator, a diagram of a fuel pump with busted electrical connections, and eight fellow students preparing for a test to certify their skills as mechanics and help them find jobs.

The world of transportation is facing the biggest upheaval in generations, with Uber and Lyft taking bites out of the taxi and transit industries, self-driving cars joining electric scooters on teeming city streets, and auto companies around the world scrambling to build cheaper electric cars, all shaking up associated jobs and the way people move.

According to a recent study by the Brookings Institution, changes in transportation tied to autonomous vehicles, or AVs, will affect 9.5 million people in 329 occupations — or 1 in 20 workers across the country. That is millions more jobs than are generally counted in such analyses.

The tally of those to be affected accounts for expected types of workers such as bus and delivery drivers, but it also includes construction workers, logisticians, shipping clerks, vehicle designers and auto mechanics, all of whom will be “directly exposed to changes in their work due to AVs and other [digitization],” according to the study, which was written by Joseph Kane and Adie Tomer.

Though that will mean tumult and job losses in some transportation-related fields, other fields will experience gains, Tomer said in an interview. The net result over the next decade could be positive, he said, though uncertainties abound.

“We’re not that pessimistic here,” Tomer said. “The driver side absolutely can be automated, but that’s where we think a lot of folks can do other tasks within the industry.” Those other tasks include working on the security or logistics of moving what is in a truck rather than being behind the wheel. “Let’s get our workers ready for this,” he said.

And that’s what was happening one recent morning in an industrial strip beside the Anacostia Freeway, at Excel Automotive Institute. Here amid the down-on-their luck cars and acrid smells in the garage, there were moments of puzzlement and flashes of excitement as students brought their book learning to real-world leaks and electrical shorts.

“We’ve got to figure out where we’re going to put the test lead,” Riley said, as classmate Conchetta Lindsay, 36, futzed with light-green and red wires on the gray Infinity with rhinestone on the steering wheel.

Guiding them was electrical instructor Eddie Cathey, who worked a Mississippi cotton-and-corn farm with his father until he was 18. Cathey repeatedly failed the literacy tests needed to join the military before finally making it into the Navy Reserve, starting a path of education that later had him testing weapons systems for Trident submarines.

“Crank it up, Mr. Cathey,” Riley said.

“Everything out of the way?” Cathey asked. Then, in his deep drawl, he drilled the students. “The battery’s been discharged. The car’s running. What should the output be?”

There was some back and forth about the sickly alternator, and then Peter Derry, 28, offered a solution. “We’ve got to take it apart and test everything,” he said.

Derry had been a roadside flagger on a gas utility project before getting into the automotive training program. “My chances of advancing doing flagging were next to none,” he said.

His goal is to build a business buying, fixing up and selling cars, and knowing them from the inside out will help. His first big repair, replacing the air bag in a Ford F-150 pickup, was guided by a DIY video on YouTube. “I actually did this!” he said to himself then, and now he’s getting professional training.

“This is a career,” Derry said.

Riley recently used what he’s learned at Excel to buy a Dodge Grand Caravan from the Maryland car auction where he used to work. He got the ’90s-era minivan for $300. It has 160,000 miles on the odometer, but he has it humming nicely.

Driving through the District in the Caravan, he and one of his girls saw a car with the license plate “H8T GAS,” which perplexed her until Riley started explaining electric cars. For Christmas, he found her a buildable robot set so she can start tooling around with electricity herself.

Riley is not concerned about the disruptions that technology titans and carmakers have in mind, from electrification to autonomy.

“Everything is changing,” Riley said. “You have to evolve, yourself.”

Not everyone comes ready to learn, and helping them settle in is a major focus of the training, Excel executive director La’Chaun Vire said. Students need help with housing, financial literacy, food, child care and transportation, and “for a person to finish, they’ve got to have the support services in place.”

Some have faced trauma, and their tools for coping can undermine their efforts, she said, adding that before arriving, some had used the District’s decriminalization of recreational marijuana to become bolder about smoking. “You can’t work on cars under the influence,” Vire said.

Others need to learn “how to show up confident, not cocky” when meeting potential employers, or how to handle a would-be boss’s skepticism about those trying to come into the workforce after prison, she said.

“We do worry some people will have fear and walk away from all this education,” Vire said. “I always tell them, ‘You have to show up for yourself. You really are going to have to apply yourself.’ ”

Excel has received donations from the International Monetary Fund, the Richard E. and Nancy P. Marriott Foundation, carmakers including Honda and Volkswagen, and others.

Excel trains students as part of the D.C. Infrastructure Academy, which was launched in early 2018 by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), expanding on similar efforts in Atlanta and Philadelphia. It trains its students to be commercial drivers, solar panel installers, utility workers and auto mechanics.

As part of Ford’s announcement that it will launch a self-driving taxi and delivery business in the District in 2021, company executives pledged to connect city residents to jobs related to autonomy, including mapping projects and safety monitoring, and to help some find jobs through the Infrastructure Academy.

A new Excel class starts in January, and there are openings. Students who take an outside test certifying what they’ve learned are allowed to take a follow-up class on brakes and steering suspension, which can further boost their job prospects. Some receive a stipend as they continue, to help defray living expenses.

“For you to be receiving that money and receiving an education, it definitely helped out a lot of people,” said Riley, one of the students to advance to a follow-up class.

Riley got married last year and is considering applying for work maintaining Metro buses or maybe getting experience at a car dealership. He recently looked into possibilities with Audi. He is also interested in learning more about electric cars.

What he wants is “a different challenge every day,” Riley said, and he is motivated by the process of “seeing something not working, figuring out why it’s not working and making it work.”

“It makes you feel good about yourself,” he said.

On a recent afternoon, Lindsay — whose classmates, all guys, call her Connie — sat quietly with longtime instructor Alfonso Galvez, reviewing electrical diagrams for her upcoming certification exam. Earlier, while she worked in class and the shop, someone stole the license plates off her Acura.

“That just like blew my day,” Lindsay said, sitting before a laptop review of how to diagnose trunk-light circuit problems. “But I’m still doing this. This is really important.”