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Originally published in the Georgia Straight
There’s no shortage of poorly paid artists in Vancouver. But Tate Westerman studied fine art and still managed to earn a decent living, thanks to his passion for automobiles. In 1995, he studied to become an automotive technician at Vancouver Community College (VCC) because it was a pathway for him to express himself creatively and escape poverty.
“I was a starving artist for a while and I realized I couldn’t raise a family on it,” Westerman told the Straight by phone.
He had learned some things about the automotive trade from his father and grandfather. His two options were to become an auto mechanic or an autobody-repair specialist—and autobody seemed to be the more creative option. While in his 30s, he bought his own shop in Port Moody—and similar opportunities exist today for those who obtain interprovincial Red Seal accreditation.
“There are lots of opportunities to buy into existing body shops [and] to open up your own restoration shops, even at home.”
Twenty-two years later, Westerman returned to VCC to become an instructor in transportation trades. He said that anyone interested in enrolling can visit the college and take a free tour and learn how to become an automotive collision repair or refinishing technician. According to him, those with an artistic eye can really excel if they’re also attentive students who show up on time and try to do their best.
Westerman pointed out that a technician can do a beautiful repair in a customer’s vehicle yet leave greasy handprints on the steering wheel. And that’s what the customer will notice, no matter how well the job was done.
He added that women are far more prominent in the industry in the 21st century, which is a big change from when he entered the business.
“Women tend to take a bit more attention and care,” Westerman said, “but having an artistic eye and good hand-eye coordination is very important [in] this industry to become successful.”
With baby boomers retiring, Westerman said there is increasing demand for technicians. Companies like BMW and B.C. Transit ask about the best students before they’ve even completed their coursework.
“When they exit the program, they are already either signed up as an apprentice or offered a scholarship or offered an apprenticeship or a job,” he said. “So right now the industry is really strong and is actually paying to have these students come. They’re paying good wages and are willing to pay incentives, like signing bonuses.”
The automotive collision repair technician program will accept its next group of students in September. It’s a full-time, eight-month certificate program at VCC’s Broadway campus. The automotive refinishing prep technician program is a full-time five-month certificate program, also at the Broadway campus. Students can also enroll in apprenticeship programs and obtain a B.C. trade certificate while earning a living in the industry.
For Westerman, it has been a natural progression from being a VCC student to working in the industry, owning his own shop, and then coming back to school to teach the next generation of automotive technicians.
“I think the thing that sticks with me the most—being a graduate and being alumni with the college—is when you start a program at this college, it’s a relationship,” Westerman said. “That sticks with you throughout your whole career and for your life. From the day I set foot at VCC, I always felt welcomed by my instructors.
“I could always come visit, even if I wasn’t a student anymore,” he continued. “I can reach them for advice, for job opportunities, even to come into the shop [when I] need a piece of equipment that I can’t find anywhere else. I’ve always felt welcome there. And most every student that comes through here comes back to visit.”
Motivated by hands-on work that feels rewarding at the end of the day? Sign up to tour our auto service shops, speak with instructors, and watch current students in training at one of our information sessions.