Cuesta College student revs up for international auto tech contest

Michael Mullen's success in competitive auto service events will take him to South America twice over the next 18 months.
Michael Mullen's success in competitive auto service events will take him to South America twice over the next 18 months. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Cuesta College student Michael Mullen is such a good mechanic that his friends come to him for car advice or bring him their vehicles for oil changes and brake jobs – the types of repairs he can undertake out of his garage.

But the 20-year-old’s mechanical experience in the SkillsUSA program’s automotive technology program has enabled him to solve a variety of car problems from faulty transmissions to malfunctioning air conditioners.

His success in competitive auto service events will take him to South America twice over the next 18 months.

Mullen will compete in the automotive technology contest in the WorldSkills international event for those under age 23 in Sao Paulo, Brazil in August 2015. He’ll be the only U.S. competitor in automotive technology and the second San Luis Obispo resident ever to make it to the event.

In 2011, San Luis Obispo High student Daniel Lehmkuhl placed sixth in automotive technology in London.

“This is like the Olympics for this event,” said John Stokes, Cuesta College division chair in engineering and technology who advises Mullen. “To get this far, a student has to put in an awful lot of work.”

In April, Mullen will fly to Bogota, Colombia for a tune-up competition called WorldSkills Americas that brings participants from North America and South America.

The non-profit WorldSkills and SkillsUSA programs are designed for high school and college students to build their expertise in various technical fields, including carpentry, plumbing, auto service, web design, cabinetmaking, electronics, and welding. Judges from the respective industries assess hands-on skill, verbal and written abilities through a variety of timed tests.

Mullen will face off against competitors from top auto production countries – including Japan, Sweden, and Germany.

Mullen was successful in the SkillsUSA competition as a San Luis Obispo High student, where he took autoshop courses. In high school, he won the gold medal nationally as a senior in 2011 and a bronze in the SkillsUSA regional as a junior. Earlier this year, he earned a silver medal at the SkillsUSA national conference in Kansas City for community college students, which led to the invite to the WorldSkills contest.

Mullen enjoys the process of solving a car problem. “When you’re diagnosing, it’s basically like doing puzzles,” Mullen said. “You have to figure out what’s out of place and put it back together. You get satisfaction from figuring out what’s wrong and fixing it.”

Mullen will practice by tinkering with car parts, including an engine that he’ll disassemble and reassemble, one of the 12 timed tests he’ll undertake.

“It’s all pretty nerve-wracking,” Mullen said. “You’re working up a sweat. You’re spinning wrenches for two hours.”

Through the competition, sponsors from companies such as Ford, Toyota, Mercedes and BMW sometimes make job offers to the students. His experience as a mechanic includes work for British Sports Cars and Rizzoli’s Automotive in San Luis Obispo between 2011 and 2013. He also interned at BMW Neiderlassung-Stuttgart as an exchange student in Germany in spring 2012.

Based on his skill level, Mullen already could pursue work with one of those companies, but he plans to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering, hoping to attend Cal Poly.

Another perk of the event is travel opportunities, and he’ll tour Brazil, along with interaction with international students.

“Here in the U.S., it’s a one-day event,” Mullen said. “But at the WorldSkills, it takes place over multiple days and it’s more of a celebration. You have more a chance to talk with the other competitors between events.”

In the meantime, he’ll practice and continue his mechanic work as a hobby and inevitably receive requests for favors. “I get people asking me to fix things all the time,” Mullen said.

“Usually, I’ll do it in exchange for some Firestone’s food or charge about $40 per hour. I don’t have a lot of equipment at my house, so usually it’s a simple repair or I’ll tell someone where to go for what they need.”