By Lauren Fitch Kokomo Tribune
---- — Mike Hedrick and Matt Summitt spent their final days of class this week at Ivy Tech Community College taking a math exam and repairing a vehicle’s cooling system.
The two men will graduate from Ivy Tech’s automotive institute this month, bringing the total number to complete the pilot program in Kokomo to seven. The institute was established in 2011 at Ivy Tech’s locations in Kokomo and Terre Haute, before expanding to a total of five sites across the state in 2012.
For Hedrick, from Marion, the automotive institute provided a chance to redirect his career. Hedrick spent 17 years as a truck driver and ran his own auto shop on the side. Eventually, health complications prevented him from getting behind the wheel, so he enrolled in Ivy Tech’s one-year, accelerated automotive institute to update his mechanical training.
“I did it because it was quick,” Hedrick said. “The instructors were good. I liked that a lot.”
Full-time students in the automotive institute attend classes for seven hours each weekday for 40 weeks. Graduates from the program walk away with at least 13 industry-recognized certifications that could land them a job in any mechanic-related position at new car dealers, independent repair shops, auto parts stores or other companies.
“It’s shorter; they get in and out quicker. It’s more hands-on,” said Mike Erny, chair of the automotive technology program. Erny helped start the auto institute. “This is a lot more geared toward industry. … It’s hard to do a lot of that in a traditional two-year degree program.”
Kokomo’s automotive institute currently enrolls two full-time sections and two-part time sections, with about 30 students set to graduate in July 2014. Students spend about 75 percent of their class time in the shop, working on vehicle alignment, repairing transmissions, brakes, suspension and diagnosing other issues with the vehicles. Erny and the program’s two other instructors all have at least 20 years of experience in the field.
“That makes a difference with a lot of the students because they know we have experience and can relate to them,” Erny said.
The transition to the institute’s current format was a three-year process that involved gaining advice from companies in the industry, rewriting the curriculum and updating tools and equipment. The institute is Snap-On certified and accredited by the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation.
Erny is proud of the program’s practical approach to auto work, and he plans to continue working with companies in the industry to keep the curriculum relevant.
“I think we’re going to have pretty stable growth. We’ve been getting a lot of good feedback from students and good feedback from employers as they’re starting to see (graduates),” he said. “It’s trying to bring academics and industry back into alignment.”
Mark Watkins, employed in the service department at Eriks Chevrolet in Kokomo, sat on the advisory board that guided Ivy Tech as it established the automotive institute. Eriks Chevrolet since has hired three graduates of the program.
“We look at their curriculum and what they’re teaching the students to make suggestions based on what we see in the field,” Watkins said. “The biggest problem is keeping up with technology because it changes so quickly. … It’s a big challenge for them because (they’re working) with all the car lines.”
With car manufacturers making advancements and adding new features to vehicles, auto technicians often spend time researching how to repair or replace the new parts, Watkins said. A strong understanding of basic mechanics, vehicles and equipment is critical for skilled workers, he added.
“The fact I know the program (at Ivy Tech) and what they teach, in talking to (graduates) you can tell they have that basic knowledge and are in a position where they could advance,” Watkins said. “Even after they enter our businesses, they’re still learning, but that basic knowledge is important.”
One of the automotive institute’s first graduates, Mike VerBryck, who completed the program in August, now works in the mechanics department at Andersons Inc., a fertilizer distributor in Walton.
“(Working on vehicles) is a thing I’ve done my whole life as a hobby, so I figured I’d turn it into a job,” he said.
VerBryck uses the skills he learned at Ivy Tech to work on the semis and trucks at Andersons. He, Hedrick and Summitt all agreed that the training on electronics was especially valuable.
Lauren Fitch, education reporter, can be reached at 765-454-8587, Lauren.Fitch@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @LaurenBFitch.