PALMETTO -- When Manatee County's first vocational school class graduated in 1964, some of the 78 scholars who earned diplomas were auto mechanics.
But Sunday, when Manatee Technical Institute graduated its historic 50th class of 1,400 at the Bradenton Area Convention Center, not a single auto mechanic was among them.
There were, however, 17 automotive service technicians, each symbolizing a half decade of computer-fueled technological advancements.
"Don't call us auto mechanics because what we do now involves technology," said Gary DeNoon, MTI automotive service technology instructor with fellow instructors J.P Nanney, Jose Cestero, Richard Falco and Joshua Sosa. "In the old days they would send kids to vocational school saying, 'You take them. They like to work with their hands.'
"It's not like that anymore. Now, vocational kids have to work with their brains. There's no question about it."
MTI vocational brains propelled the school to 47 medals during the SkillsUSA Championships, which ended last week in Kansas City, Mo., MTI Director Mary Cantrell announced at graduation. More than 6,000 career and technical students, all state contest winners, competed in 99 different trade, technical and leadership fields, according to the SkillsUSA website.
Students worked against the clock and each other, showing skills in electronics, computer-aided drafting, precision machining, medical assisting, culinary arts and other fields, according to the website.
"For the 11th year in a row, MTI is No. 1 in the nation in most medals won at SkillsUSA," an excited Cantrell informed a cheering crowd of 3,000.
Most decorated auto tech
The most decorated automotive service technician in the history of MTI, Joaquin Ochoa, 34, graduated Sunday.
Ochoa earned 10 certifications from the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence -- one more than any student in MTI history.
Ochoa's certifications include: engine repair, automatic transmission/transaxle, manual drivetrain and axle, suspension and steering, brakes, electrical/electronic systems, heating and air conditioning, engine performance and auto maintenance and light repair and automobile advanced engine performance.
"The one I am most proud of is advanced engine performance because in order to even be eligible to take that one you have to pass the first eight," said Ochoa, (first name pronounced HAK-eem).
The 10 exams earn him the title ASE certified master technician and advanced engine performance specialist.
Ochoa also won a gold medal in the SkillsUSA competition.
Due in no small part to his achievements at MTI, Ochoa was hired in April as a technician with Suncoast Motorsports, Porsche-Audi-Volkswagen in Sarasota. He is also a member of the National Technical Honor Society.
Ochoa's proud family came to Bradenton Area Convention Center to see him graduate on a hot and humid June day where every car's air-conditioning unit was put to the test.
"With his drive, it doesn't surprise me Joaquin set the record for certifications," said Jennifer Rachal , Ochoa's partner of nine years, who invited him on a motorcycle ride on their first date.
She knew the way to win this man's heart.
Ochoa loves anything with a motor or even wheels, said David Ochoa, his father.
"As a boy, he took all his toys apart and put them back together," David Ochoa said of his son. "I also remember him working on mopeds and not being satisfied until they ran perfectly."
It could have something to do with the fact David Ochoa zipped a tiny Joaquin inside his leather jacket and took him on rides on his motorcycle when his son was just 2 weeks old.
Now, Rachal drives a R750 Suzuki and, with Ochoa at Suncoast, the family dreams of one day having an Audi.
Life was not always this good for Ochoa and his partner.
For more than a decade, Ochoa worked low-paying jobs such as an auto dismantler, stripping cars for a nationwide automobile recycling company. He was laid off in 2012.
"I was maxed out at $11 per hour without certifications," Ochoa said.
Through the Workforce Investment Act, a government-funded program that helps people become more employable, Ochoa enrolled Jan. 22, 2013, at MTI.
Keeping his current wage per hour confidential, Ochoa said: "I will be able to live comfortably. I won't have to chase side jobs on the weekend. I will be able to spend time with my family, including Jennifer and our son, Teddy, who is 10."
Ochoa applied himself at MTI, DeNoon said.
"The first minute I met him I didn't know what to think about the long hair and goatee," DeNoon said. "But, by the end of the first day, after I heard him say to me, 'Yes, sir' and 'No, sir' and seeing how he went above and beyond wanting to learn, I was really impressed,"
Like everyone else, DeNoon calls Ochoa by his nickname, "Wac," which Ochoa got in seventh grade.
"There was no need ever to encourage Wac to study," DeNoon said. "He was motivated."
Ochoa has some advice to others who feel they don't have all the education they could use.
"Any type of education you can get, grasp a hold of it and run with it," Ochoa said.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @ RichardDymond.