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Restoration Colleges Take a Different Approach to “Teaching the Classics”

The new school year is now well under way, and across the country high school seniors are making plans for their next phase of life. For many, that means applying to a university, a community college, or a tech school to continue their education with a specific career goal in mind. It can be a challenging time for students, especially those torn between the allure of an academic degree and the satisfaction of learning practical trade skills.

The decision for students who want a career working on cars and truck used to be simple – go to trade school, get your certifications and fall into work at a local indie shop or dealership. But as cars have become more digital, the traditional shop mechanic role has lost some of its glimmer for a new generation. At the same time, the classic car market has exploded in recent years. Combined, these two factors have created new opportunities for a very specific position, that of the restoration technician.

And as a result, today’s grads have more options than ever before to get a proper education in the field of professional restoration. For the last few years, traditional tech schools and four-year colleges alike have developed specialized programs to satisfy demand in this growing sector.

As a former director of an automotive restoration business, I had the pleasure of working with several graduates from a variety of restoration colleges. And while the school experiences of each of my technicians varied considerably, they all arrived better prepared to work in the modern shop environment than a lot of the qualified veterans of the industry I also interviewed and managed.

Two Years or Less

The most local of the technical colleges that fed us applicants was the Pennsylvania College of Technology, or PennCoTech, in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Here, students learned a variety of automotive-specific skills used in the course of restoring classic cars and trucks. The mix focused heavily on the usual mechanical, fabrication, bodywork, and painting skills, but also included upholstery and trim as well as other minor disciplines.

One such graduate, Eugene Toner, began working at a local British car specialist as an intern while attending PennCoTech. Although he’d grown up wrenching on all sorts of cars with his father, he says he got his introduction to metal fabrication by going through the program, crediting his instructor Roy Klinger with opening him up to a whole new skill set. The internship worked out so well that he was asked to join the team permanently after graduation. That was seven years ago, and he’s still at the same shop.

Another school whose graduate we hired was Ohio Technical College. Similar to the two-year certificate program at PennCoTech, OTC offers its students a relatively quick path to employment in its restoration program. The 72-week course of study includes all the major disciplines most resto shops need. The curriculum, broken down into twelve 6-week modules, operates on a rolling enrollment schedule, allowing for several new cohorts to begin their journey throughout the year.

Program co-director Robert Forcinio noted the Automotive Restoration curriculum started about 17 years ago and has evolved with the times. About eight years ago, in fact, the college added a Rod and Custom certificate. Recently the two programs, which overlapped considerably, to form the Rod and Custom Restoration program. He reflect on that change in focus, saying, “TV does influence students. They watch the restoration shows and the custom shows. Everyone wants to work for Dave Kendig, right?”

He explains the school’s unique approach to the coursework, explaining that the 72-week schedule requires the students to clock 1,800 hours of work to graduate the program. The standard program graduates students with a diploma for their course of study, but students can also enroll in a more complete college schedule with math and language classes to earn an Associate of Applied Sciences degree. Additional industry-specific certifications are also available outside of the normal coursework.

Robert notes that over the years, he’s seen more female students join the ranks. in his fourteen years at the school, he says there has always been at least one young woman in the program, but more typically two or three. “They have a much better eye for detail,” he adds. “And the can hammer form just as well as the guys. And sometimes better, because they’re a little more gentle; their finished result usually requires less planishing work.”

Reflecting on the current job market, he adds, “I’m getting a lot of calls [from potential employers] for folks who can do upholstery. Mechanical, not so much.” He also recognizes that to future-proof the current crop of students for tomorrow’s work, the college has had to start bringing in newer vehicles to train on. “We need to move into the ‘80s and ‘90s at this point…we may see some front-wheel drive cars in there somewhere,” he adds, as if that’s a novel concept.

The Four-Year Plan

We can’t mention restoration colleges without talking about McPherson College in McPherson, Kansas. Unlike at most of the other schools, students graduate McPherson’s Automotive Restoration program with a 4-year Bachelor’s degree. Not only do students get deeper training on a broader range of skills, they also get schooled in the business of restoration. This was one of the reasons I was excited to hire a McPherson grad to manage one of our shops.

McPherson instructor Brian Martin explained to me that in addition to all the shop time students get learning technical skills, the college also prepares them for the real world with communications, small business management, art history, science, accounting and other classes that, as he says, “require thought processes outside of the standard technical training.”

But the technical training is the reason most prospects enroll in McPherson’s program. They’ll learn the usual mechanical and fabrication skills other schools teach, but they’ll also spend extensive time learning upholstery, woodworking, casting, and other more complex processes. Brian adds, “We don’t make tires and we don’t bend glass, but we teach pretty much everything else.”

Class sizes here are small, with only ten to twelve students at a time enrolled in hands-on courses to maximize their exposure and project time. “They’re not here for Philosophy of Restoration,” he jokes. “But the majority of our students are college-bound students…that might normally be pushed towards mechanical engineering…but just have a deep-seated need to do something with their hands.”

McPherson started its restoration program all the way back in 1976, albeit as a more traditional 2-year technical certificate program. Beginning in 2003, the program switched to the current 4-year model. “One of the things that really sets us apart,” according to Brian, “is having that real college experience and walking away with a bachelor’s degree that allows flexibility for their career in the future.”

He reiterates the desperate need for qualified restoration techs today. For the 35 to 40 students that graduate each year, he figures there are probably 250 to 300 job postings. He’s quick to add that jobs in this field aren’t just limited to the workshop. Auction houses have recruited his graduates. They’ve also been hired away for jobs in graphic design and photography, owing to the program’s inclusion of restoration design courses. And yes, of course, upholstery. “It’s clean and it’s quiet and it’s creative and there’s problem solving. And yeah, there’s a big need.”

Brian sees the future of restoration a bit differently than today, explaining most of the valuable cars have already been restored at least once. “So when it comes to doing a full-bore restoration, you’re repairing someone else’s fixes. And you don’t always know that it was done accurately. And so the research and documentation part of the restoration will become more important.”

He’s also excited by the increasing popularity of driving events for classic vehicles, from cars-and-coffee gatherings to long-distance touring rallies. “Getting cars to work as well or better than they look is becoming more important,” he notes, adding, “because when you go out on a tour or rally and have to fill up with gas, you can’t guarantee you’ll be able to fill up with non-ethanol gas, for instance. So technicians that know how to diagnose and work through the challenges of making an old car operate in the modern world will be valuable.”

The best validation for McPherson’s approach may be its second-place award at the prestigious 2023 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. The school’s entry was an all student-restored 1953 Mercedes-Benz 300 Cabriolet, the first ever podium win at the event for a student restoration. As Brian stated shortly after winning the award win August, “There is something extremely validating about competing with the best in the field and showing that we belong. I have always believed the automotive restoration students at McPherson College were world-class, and last weekend we proved it.”


  1. sounds like we need programs just for interiors/ upholstery. the local body shops here all farm out to 2 shops over 100 miles away.
    there’s high demand, minimal tool set up costs, high income available.

  2. That is very good. We need to educate our youths so we can become the number one manufacturing country in the world.