EDA-funded automotive training facility boosts Alabama economy

Decatur, Alabama, is a small community outside of Huntsville that has experienced steady growth over the past few decades. As the population grows, so do many businesses to meet their needs. Decatur now has more than two dozen auto dealerships.

The new training center offers students the same tools and facilities used in auto dealerships today.

With so many cars on the road, automotive technicians are in high demand. As recently as 2018, dealerships will send their technicians for more than two hours to receive training and certification. Managers knew there had to be a better way to recruit and train local automotive professionals. Contacted owner of local Ford dealership Calhoun Community College (CCC) and suggested a training program for them.

„We haven’t had an automotive program in over 25 years, but we pride ourselves on listening to businesses and industry. However, finding funding for brick-and-mortar community colleges can be a challenge,” said Lewis Null, automotive technology instructor at CCC.

That funding comes from the Economic Development Administration (EDA), which provided $1.5 million in 2018. General works Grant for establishment of Automotive Technical Training Facility.

„We don’t have a screwdriver for an automotive project,” said John Holley, dean of technologies. „We started teaching at one of the local high schools and then rented our own facility. With EDA funding, we now operate a 23,000 sq ft facilityWith 20 vehicle bays.”

The facility offers state-of-the-art diagnostic tools and equipment. Students get hands-on experience in front-end alignment, tire balancing, driving and more. They learn to work on a wide variety of makes and models representing traditional gas-powered automobiles and electric vehicles.

„What’s most impressive about our vehicle facility is that it’s big, bright, clean, high-tech and it’s modern,” said Wes Dorain, director of public relations and digital media. „This is not your grandfather’s auto shop is a perfect example of the phrase.”

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Now fully accredited, the two-year program offers graduates associate degrees in automotive technology. More than 100 students are currently enrolled, many of whom participate in the internship program, completing a morning course before going to work at a local dealership.

„We run the facility like a shop, and we make sure these kids touch every part of the car,” Nall said. „We teach them the importance of work ethic and using critical thinking because a lot of these kids are used to sitting on their phones. It’s a lot of work and they have to grow up a little bit, but our dealers always tell us, they’re productive from day one.”

“What surprised me most about the program was the diversity of our students,” recalls Jimmy Hodges, president of CCC. „When one of our graduates was growing up she was often told she wouldn’t amount to anything. Today, she is often recognized as the best employee at her dealership, especially by those in management.

A ribbon cutting ceremony was held in 2021.

However, the coronavirus pandemic almost slammed the brakes on this new facility.

„Covid was a huge impact on program recruitment and practical experience at the start,” Holley said. „A lot of our coursework was done online, and we had six months of missed opportunities.”

By 2023, they will be fully unlocked and hit the road to victory. Courses are offered in three different daily time slots, and for the first time in the program’s history, all three are full, giving students the hands-on experience that dealers want.

CCC also actively builds a pipeline of younger students by sponsoring summer camps with local chapters of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, focusing on low-income neighborhoods. They want to provide opportunities and exposure to CCC programs, be it automotive or any other course offered by the college. They want to take their success in the automotive project and replicate it in other industries, including aviation.

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„If there’s an opportunity, we’ll go back to the EDA,” Holley said.

To read about other programs supported by the Economic Development Administration, please visit eda.gov.

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