MABANK–As a young boy Cotton Riley dreamed of flying. So much so that the self-proclaimed “speed and adrenaline junkie” worked most of his high school years toward attending the U.S. Air Force Academy and becoming a fighter pilot. That all changed during his junior year at Mabank High School. Cotton Riley still wanted to fly; he was just going to use a different vehicle to do so.
Cotton switched gears on his career plan as a student in Leonard Eason’s high school automotive class.
Eason recalled the day Cotton came into his class and told him about his dreams of becoming a fighter pilot.
“I told him that becoming a pilot was fine, but asked him if he had ever considered the possibility of flying two feet off the ground,” Eason said. “I remember him processing that for a second or two, then replying, “Wow! That sounds like fun.”
Eason spent the next few months teaching, talking up the advantages of a career in the automotive industry and showing his students the possibilities that awaited them with time and proper training.
That is when it clicked for Cotton.
“I saw an opportunity to be in a career field that would not die out in a few years,” Cotton explained. “I knew that after graduation I didn’t want to sit in a classroom anymore. I wanted to go to work and I wanted to work with my hands.”
His mind began to soar. Cotton started looking at options for continuing his education in a new field of study.
“The CTE (Career Technical Education) classes at Mabank gave me an opportunity to learn a craft before I left school,” Cotton explained. “I knew that when I left Mabank I wouldn’t be behind the curve.”
Cotton shopped the top schools in the automotive industry including Universal Technical Institute (UTI), Texas State Technical College, Lincoln Tech and WyoTech in Wyoming.
“Mr. Eason was a great resource for me. He is great at what he does and knows what he is talking about when it comes to the auto industry and training,” Cotton said. “He trained us and introduced us to so many opportunities. When he took us to tour the UTI campus I knew then what I wanted to do.”
Once Cotton was sold, the next step was persuading his parents. He knew they would take some convincing.
Like many parents Patricia and Chuck Riley were worried about whether or not a technical school would meet society’s expectations for higher education in the workplace. As a school counselor, Patricia was well aware of the need for skilled workers but also knew that society has a preconceived notion about the need for a college degree.
“Cotton’s education was important to us,” Patricia said. “We knew that Cotton was more than capable of succeeding at a four-year university and we knew the importance of having a post-secondary education. We just needed to know that a tech school could provide Cotton with everything he needed to be successful.”
A tour of the UTI facility in Irving, including a meeting with a recruiter, was all it took to convince Cotton’s parents that tech school was a great fit for their son.
“I was impressed not only with hands-on training that students were receiving, but with the academic program as well,” Patricia recalled. “There was a focus on writing, math and communication skills. I knew Cotton was going to leave UTI with a greater knowledge than just knowing how to work under the hood of a car.”
So with his parents’ blessing Cotton began his one-year training at UTI.
Like any school, UTI kicked off the year with orientation. Students were introduced to their new surroundings, rules, regulations and post-graduate programs that were available.
“That is when I set a goal to get into the Porsche Technology Apprentice Program. It was the most sought after and most difficult to get into,” Cotton said. “I saw it as a challenge.”
Cotton knew it would mean being on top of his game and that Porsche would only reach out to those students who met the UTI standards. He also knew that he would not know if he made the program until close to graduation.
So for one year, Cotton worked hard, maintained a 3.9 GPA and a 99 percent attendance rate. Then, one month before graduation, Cotton got the email he was waiting for, the email that told him he qualified for the Porsche program. But qualifying did not ensure that he was in, it only meant that he would take the next step. Cotton was then subject to weekly interviews by Porsche staff, sometimes more than one interview per week.
“They would ask questions about work experience, our comfort in working in certain situations, seeing if I was well versed in my skill,” Cotton said.
At the end of the month Cotton finally got the confirmation. He was invited to participate in the Porsche program. He graduated from UTI on August 31, 2018, and four days later he was sitting in a classroom in Atlanta, Ga., at Porsche Headquarters.
Being accepted came with several perks. Aside from getting to work on some of the most exquisite, high performing vehicles in the industry, Cotton was one of only 48 students selected each year to the program.
“They paid for my travel to Atlanta, my housing and they helped make sure I had part-time employment while I was there,” Cotton added. “And, if I was successful in the program, they would make sure I had a job afterward.”
In addition to the challenge of the Porsche program, Cotton faced something even more difficult. For the first time in his life he was separated from his family and everything he had ever known. He was now more than 10 hours away, learning how to live on his own, adjusting to a place he had never been, and going to school.
“I had never lived outside of Kemp,” Cotton said. “I had attended Mabank schools my whole life. I didn’t know anything different. I had never lived on my own. It was a huge adjustment.”
Fortunately, the program kept him busy and the excitement of what he was doing kept him motivated.
“We spent a lot of time working on the cars, about 70/30 percent ratio of car to classroom,” Cotton said. “I am a hands on learner. I like to feel my way around and manipulate my way through the experience. It was the perfect learning environment for me.”
While repairing the cars was exciting, once those magnificent machines are repaired they have to be test-driven; and they have to be driven by the person who does the repairs.
Cotton had never driven a Porsche so getting behind the wheel of a car that is known for its high performance and speed was exactly what he was looking for in a career. It was the excitement of driving these machines, along with the challenge of the program and the advanced technology of the car that sold Cotton on becoming one of the elite members of the Porsche technician team.
One of his first experiences with a Porsche was a 2019 911 Turbo S.
“It had five miles on it,” Cotton recalled. “I got to drive that car on the racetrack at Porsche Headquarters. I had never been in a vehicle that accelerated that fast. It was like a go kart on steroids.”
The fastest he has ever been: 182 miles per hour on a closed track.
Cotton, who at the age of 20 is the youngest certified Porsche technician in the United States, is now a technician for Porsche Grapevine, which is just a stone’s throw from Park Place Lexus, where he worked while attending UTI. And, Grapevine is much closer to home and family.
“I get to work on people’s race cars all day long, in a brand new, spotless, air conditioned facility,” Cotton boasted.
So now that he has completed his education and is settled into a new career, what does Cotton have planned for the future?
“I hope one day to move up into a management position or even own my own Porsche shop,” Cotton said. He also said the future includes a car: a Porsche GT3RS.
For now, Cotton is focusing on becoming a great technician. His drive and his work ethic do not go unnoticed. His alma mater has taken an interest in his journey.
“I have been asked to speak at some of UTI’s larger events and I filmed a commercial for them,” Cotton said.
Additionally, Cotton was told just days ago that he was nominated for the 2019 Top Graduate award from UTI. Given by the Accrediting Commision of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC), a win for Cotton would mean that his picture and testimonial would be aired on every UTI campus throughout the United States.
The nomination itself is prestigious. Only one student from each of the 11 UTI campuses across the country are nominated. Even more exciting, winning the award would mean that all of Cotton’s student loans (both his and his parents’ portions) would be paid in full, including any expenses that have already been paid.
“It has been such a pleasure watching this young man grow in so many ways. I am so proud of his accomplishments,” Eason said about his protege’. “I told him once, if you do your best, God will do the rest.”
Cotton’s response to all of this attention: “I just turn wrenches, and love what I do.”
So, while the landscape of Cotton’s future has changed, one aspect has not. Cotton still managed to reach his goal to fly, but now he flies on wheels, instead of wings.