Bruce Britt for AIFFP
(Association of Independent Feature Film Producers)
Though some may debate his methods, one thing is certain:
Petulla's radical, yet time-honored approach to teaching could
shake higher learning to its unstable core. He is founder
and president of Career Connection, a California-based program
that applies the old world concept of "apprenticing"
-- i.e., a learning experience where students receive personal,
on-the-job training from a seasoned professional.
An entertainment-oriented vocational program, Career Connection
offers students a low-cost, work-intensive way to enter the
worlds of radio, TV, film and recording. Petulla's graduates
have been hired at some of the most prestigious companies
in the entertainment business, including Universal Studios,
ABC, CNN, Sony, MTV, NBC Radio, ESPN and HBO. Career Connection
students have worked on projects for renowned artists like
director James Cameron ("Titanic"), Wesley Snipes,
the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Madonna, Nirvana, Garth Brooks,
Puff Daddy, David Bowie and countless others.
Moreover, Petulla's system allows students to acquire real-world
knowledge in the studio of their choice in any city or country.
His flexible program allows ambitious, industrious students
to work part-time, nights or weekends with no prior experience
required. In praise of Petulla and his innovative system,
television veteran and ABC "20/20" host Hugh Downs
recently commented: "It is especially amazing to me the
amount of people you have placed in broadcasting jobs all
over the country."
Echoing the sentiments of many Career Connection students,
recording engineer Billy Flores says: "Although I am
an intern, (Career Connection has) enabled me to work in a
top-of-the-line studio with some the music industry's finest
... Don Henley, Brian Wilson and the Rolling Stones."
Aside from its apparent efficacy, Career Connection also
seems like a remarkable bargain and an educational boon. According
to Petulla, Career Connection eliminates crowded classrooms,
stratospheric tuitions and college courses that often fail
to result in gainful employment. In bold contrast, Career
Connection students work in every aspect of radio and television
broadcasting, music recording, post production, video production,
film production, digital and computer animation, special effects
and other music, multimedia, and radio and television on-air
and behind-the-scenes positions. And though his system caters
to the entertainment industry, Petulla claims it could easily
apply to most vocations.
"I believe the best teacher is an eminent working professional
who is paying the rent by doing the work," Petulla says.
"In my view, schools have become money making endeavors
where the student often gets hurt. My system cuts out all
the junk -- the bureaucracy, the Federal Aid, the US $50,000
tuitions. What I'm doing is breaking the chain of impersonal
education. My system goes back to the days of royalty, when
a craftsmen shared their knowledge one-on-one with an eager
Petulla's dim view of vocational education stems from experience.
He started his career as a teacher at a now-defunct national
broadcasting school where, he claims, he witnessed astounding
abuses of power and government funds. "It was all a sales
gimmick," Petulla says. "Prospective students would
come to the school, the admissions department would tape their
voice and automatically call them the next day to congratulate
them on having passed the admissions test. They didn't even
listen to the tape. It was a rude awakening for me."
Dismayed by his observations, Petulla took note of how American
education was failing its students. He now believes vocational
schools and colleges are human clearinghouses where students
learn in virtual environments that bear little semblance to
the real world. Towards his goal of building a better mousetrap,
Petulla developed his system of "employer trained alternative
education." Under Petulla's Career Connection program,
students pay for on-the-job training with a professional mentor.
What's more, Petulla's program can be implemented in any city
in any country. Instead of uprooting their lives to attend
a college or university, Career Connections conforms to the
student's wishes, needs and lifestyle.
Petulla has even conceived a system of checks and balances
where mentors are paid only after their assignment plans are
reviewed by the Career Connections staff. As an added incentive,
Petulla pays mentors an added bonus if students are hired
after completing their studies.
Having helped hundreds of successful and employed students,
Petulla now believes his system could make America happier,
wealthier and far more efficient and productive. He says the
Career Connection system could reduce the number of drones
toiling at jobs they hate. It could save the government billions
in defaulted student loans. It could revive the venerable
art of teaching and may even make age irrelevant. Indeed,
though many businesses are likely to turn away older job applicants,
Career Connection students are immediately placed in the care
of working professionals. In fact, Petulla says many Career
Connection students are 40 or older.
"With traditional education, a 40 year-old broadcasting
student won't get past the receptionist," Petulla says.
"With my concept, the industry doesn't see age. What's
more, the mentor-student system is flexible. It can even work
for a slow mentor and a slow student, because they work at
their own pace."
Here's how Career Connection works: After contacting Petulla,
applicants are placed on an initial interview screening schedule.
The Career Connection staff calls later to discuss the applicant's
personal goals, ambitions and expectations. If applicants
demonstrate the sufficient motivation and desire, then Petulla's
staff arranges meetings between mentors and students in the
area or region of the applicant's choice. Applicants must
have the mentor's approval to be accepted for training.
Derek Koen is a persuasive testament to the power of Petulla's
system. A former mental health technician from Newark, N.J.,
Koen enrolled with Career Connection in January, 2000. Under
the guidance of mentor Lisa Franz, Koen had completed an independent
short film and was recently hired at Wesley Snipes' production
company, Amenra Films. Koen has also established his own Los
Angeles-based production company, Brigadoon Productions. Most
impressive of all, Koen achieved these accomplishments within
8 months of enrolling with Career Connection.
Koen's rapid ascent into the film world supports what masters
like filmmaker George Lucas have claimed all along. According
to the "Star Wars" creator: "The most powerful
thing in teaching is to be able to have a one-on-one relationship
with the student. To be one human being having personal contact
with another human being -- nothing is more powerful than
Despite his disarming enthusiasm and almost evangelical zeal,
Petulla admits some people are suspicious of his system. Sitting
in his office overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Petulla comes
off like the stereotypical California pitchman -- all blue
eyes, gleaming teeth and honey-voiced charm. Like Petulla
himself, Career Connection seems too simple, sensible and
good to be true. But Petulla insists he's not selling anyone
a bill of goods. "I've seen first-hand how the educational
system is failing students," he says. "I'm in this
business to help people. That's my sincere motivation."
Rick Proto is a Career Connection student who was initially
suspicious of Petulla. The son of a California car salesman,
Proto was a heavy equipment operator until an injury suddenly
ended his career. He had planned to use his disability award
to attend vocational rehabilitation school, but along the
way he discovered Career Connection. "I was somewhat
concerned initially, because Career Connection is not your
typical accredited school," Proto says. "But I had
a feeling deep inside that Jimi's school was true to heart.
I could tell Jimi was a very sincere guy, and he followed
up on everything he promised."
After meeting with Petulla and a prospective mentor, Proto
enrolled with Career Connection. He immediately began interning
at a Hollywood production company. Proto now works 14 hour
days for little or no pay, yet he's never been happier. "At
the age of 40, I got to start my life over again," Proto
says. "I'm doing something I never really knew I had
a passion for -- the film industry. I pack each day with as
much knowledge and fun as I possibly can. And I stress the
word 'fun.' Nothing beats the feeling of doing what you love."
Asked to comment on his Career Connection experience, Proto
is downright effusive. "Career Connections is a progressive
program that allows people to fulfill their dreams in radio,
television, film or recording," he says. "If you
want to get into the entertainment industry, it's the best
way to go. If Jimi Petulla says he's going to do something
for you, he does it. I know he's always been there for me."
Apparently, Career Connection is a boon for both mentors
and students. To date, mentor Tyrone Dixon has had eight Career
Connection students, four of which are gainfully employed
in the entertainment industry. His students range in age from
19 to 45 years old. A graduate of the prestigious American
Film Institute in Los Angeles, Dixon is now the proud founder
and president of Dixon Film Entertainment. He wishes Career
Connection was around when he was starting out.
"Had it been around, I would have done Career Connection
before I applied to AFI," Dixon says. "AFI is a
respected school that introduced me to the business, but Career
Connection offers valuable, on-the-job training. As a Career
Connection mentor, I actually get students on a real set and
teach them proper structure and formatting that makes for
a viable commercial product."
Though Dixon is a vocal supporter of Career Connection, he
says the course requires dedication, hard work and some sacrifice.
"Film Connection can be a viable asset to anyone that
wants to pursue a career in the film industry," Dixon
says. "If an individual is absolutely sure film is their
passion, then Career Connection is an incredible opportunity."
Brian Hickox concurs with Dixon. The founder and president
of Brian Hickox Films Inc., his films have won seven Emmys,
a Golden Globe, a George Foster Peabody and 200 film festival
awards worldwide. A highly opinionated man, Hickox doesn't
mince words when discussing the current state of American
film education. "I find that teachers in other schools
are has-beens or never-weres," Hickox states matter-of-factly.
"If professors aren't constantly attending technical
conferences, then they're teaching students old, outdated
technology. The same applies to content. Unless you're on
the front lines talking to networks and studios on a daily
basis, you're not going to know how to prepare students to
do a proper pitch. I find the best teacher is somebody who's
on the line doing it."
Hickox says Petulla's course gives students the sort of training
most colleges don't provide. What's more, he says Career Connection
helps students decide what entertainment job suits them best.
"Students want and need behind-the-scenes experience,"
Hickox says. "With on-site training, people are able
to determine what capacity they would like to work at. Under
Jimi's system, you could be a production assistant on two
shows. That's almost enough experience to be a teacher at
most American film schools.
"Career Connection gives students hands-on, one-on-one
integration into the entertainment industry," Hickox
continues. "I don't know of any other program that does
that. After the student pays his tuition, there is a fee paid
to the trainer if he decides to hire the student after the
apprenticeship. That's a wonderful incentive for the student
and the teacher. The student gets meaningful employment and
the mentor shares his knowledge and experience. Career Connection
is filling a need for pairing enthusiastic students with capable
As if to underscore Hickox's comments, student Derek Koen
relates a remarkable Career Connection anecdote. "A lot
of people who worked on my short film were film school graduates,"
Koen says. "That's pretty amazing when you consider I've
only been doing this for eight months. Like the name says,
Career Connection can get you connected. Without ever meeting
Jimi, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing."
Bruce Britt is an award-winning journalist
and essayist. His work has appeared in the Washington Post,
USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, Billboard and other
publications. He lives in Los Angeles.