Finding Opportunity by Shifting Gears Following a Pandemic Layoff

Richard graduated from the automotive technician program at UEI College in Sacramento

Throughout Rich Ermilio’s life, working on cars was as much a necessity as it was an interest. From the time he could drive, Rich said he didn’t have the money to take his vehicle to a mechanic, so it was on him to keep his car maintained and running.

“I’ve been working on cars since high school,” said Rich, now 32. “Every car I had, I couldn’t afford to get them fixed all the time, so I had to figure it out.”

So in the spring of 2020, when the pandemic hit and he lost is long-time bartending job, Rich saw an opportunity to shift gears in his life.

Desirous of a job working on hot rods and classic cars, he decided to advance his automotive knowledge and training by enrolling in UEI College’s Automotive Technician program at the Sacramento campus. And, despite encountering significant personal hurdles that threatened to detour him from his educational journey, Rich successfully graduated from the program earlier this year.

Today, Rich is working as an automotive technician for Petersen Auto Works, a shop in Sacramento that specializes in hot rod engine repairs and custom parts.

“After getting laid off, I took the opportunity to stay busy at school and stay essential,” Rich said. “It worked out perfect. Life is good.”

Finding a Focus during the Pandemic

While an interest in cars and automotive work has always been a part of his life, Rich said his passion for hot rods was formed through an unlikely entry point: music. A stand-up bass player in a rockabilly band during his early 20s, Rich said he would often play at car shows, which helped immerse him in that culture.

Later on, he even bought his own classic cars, which he’s been fixing and updating over the last couple of years, including a ’55 Mercury, ’56 Studebaker and a ’64 T-Bird.

Yet, despite this obvious skill and passion, Rich always remained keenly aware of what put food on his family’s table. So, he reacted as many typically would when learning his bartending job – his entire career, really – was deemed “non-essential” early in the 2020 pandemic.

“The thoughts that were running through my mind would drive anyone crazy,” he said. “I had a wife, a son and rent due in two weeks. What am I supposed to do?”

After working around the house for a couple of weeks while keeping an eye on the job market, Rich said it became obvious to him that COVID-19 wasn’t going away anytime soon. That’s when he enrolled at UEI College.

“I always thought that if I ever went back to school, I would definitely do the trade school thing,” he said. “I didn’t want to waste time and money learning about other [stuff]. I wanted to fast-track and focus right away on what I was going to school for.”

That’s just what he did at UEI, which he said was critical in dialing in the electronic side of automotive (his weakness, he said) while helping him become “credentialed and essential.”

Finding Room to Breathe Again

During his final weeks of classes at UEI, Rich unexpectedly separated from his wife. The hardship was tough, he said, but becoming the sole provider and caretaker of his 2-year-old son threatened to derail his plans.

“It was really hard at first. It was tough being a single dad and trying to figure everything out,” he said. “I thought I was on the right path there, doing good, and then a huge curveball came at me that was really hard and stressful.”

But, Rich remained focused. His mom stepped up to help watch his son while he was at school, and each day he’d wake up early to do homework before classes.

“Doing homework while watching a 2-year-old – doing electrical math problems while he’s screaming – is pretty tough,” he said. “But, I stayed focused. My son and school were all I focused on.”

He also found support at UEI. Automotive instructor Tom Dougherty, he said, was a great educator who remains available to him, even after graduation.

“Tom Dougherty is freaking amazing,” Rich said. “He’s smart and helpful, and I still talk to him. He never hesitates to pick up the phone and give me some pointers if I need anything. He was the best teacher I ever had.”

The feeling was mutual, according to Tom.

“Rich was a dream student – on time every day, armed with intelligent questions which were far beyond the scope of what we were discussing in class,” Tom said. “He has an innate ability to figure out how things work on a systems level, and that puts him at the head of the pack. I’m proud of what he has accomplished and hold him as an example to fellow students.”

UEI Career Services Specialist Michael Nguyen said Rich is an example of what students can accomplish when they remain determined.

“Rich came in a whole new, vibrant man when he came to see me and pick up his diploma,” said Michael, who added that this is when Rich first shared news of his new job. “It was a great feeling. It’s the rewarding part of doing my job. What I say is we grind hard for them because they grind hard for themselves here at UEI, no matter what their background is, issues they may have, or what their image is.”

These days, Rich considers himself on a four-year career plan. He said he loves his current job and would like to stay there at least four years before considering his next move. Plus, there’s already been talk of a possible management position as the staff grows.

Such security and potential to grow, he said, is just what he needs after the last several months.

“It’s been a tough year – and I’m sure that I’m not alone and could speak for others – but now I can breathe again and provide for my son,” Rich said. “UEI paved the way for that.”

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