By Lindsey Ziliak
Tribune staff writer
Casey Wilson “turned wrenches” as a mechanic for nearly 20 years before he hurt his back and couldn’t find work.
The Kokomo man dreamed of one day being hired at a dealership for his knowledge of cars and not just because he knew how to put a part on.
But that really was all he knew how to do, he said.
He didn’t understand electrical components and computer sensors.
Technology had changed, but he didn’t change with it. He saw that he was being left behind in the automotive industry, he said.
“I wanted to create more of a career,” Wilson said. “It’s more than just being a mechanic these days. Most garages are looking for someone who can do it all.”
He had considered enrolling in Ivy Tech Community College’s traditional automotive program.
He had a hard time scheduling all of the classes he needed, though. And he was afraid of the math and communication courses that were part of the curriculum.
When Ivy Tech’s Kokomo region launched its new Automotive Institute in October, Wilson said he knew he had to be a part of it.
He’s just three months into the intense, yearlong program, and he’s already had job offers.
“I’m glad I’m here,” Wilson said.
The institute has its eight students in class six to eight hours a day, five days a week learning about fixing vehicles.
At the end of the year, students will graduate with up to 20 technical certificates from Ivy Tech. It takes two years to get the same certificates in the traditional automotive program.
Mike Erny, automotive technology program chair, said one of the goals of the new, more intense model is to increase the number of students who remain in the program and graduate.
Other Ivy Tech institutes statewide boast a 75 percent completion rate.
“That’s way more than twice as high as normal completion rates,” he said.
Erny also hopes to supply local businesses with talent quicker.
The automotive industry is in high demand locally, he said. The sooner he can get students into the workforce, the better it is for area employers.
And the better it is for the students, too.
Micheal Verbryck didn’t like the idea of spending two years in school to learn about automobiles. He wants to be working in the industry right now and making money.
Enrolling in the Automotive Institute was a compromise of sorts.
He can get the education he knows he needs if he wants to be successful and only miss a year of work doing it.
And what’s better, Verbryck will have a job waiting for him when he graduates. His part-time job at Mike Anderson’s in Logansport will turn into a full-time gig.
“They don’t mind me going to school because it benefits them, too,” he said.
There was another reason Verbryck chose the Automotive Institute over Ivy Tech’s traditional program.
He wasn’t shy about the fact that he hates math, writing, reading and speech courses.
“If I had to do regular math and read about Lewis and Clark, I wouldn’t do it,” Verbryck said. “It would be just like high school all over again. I just want to know what I need to know for automobiles.”
At the Automotive Institute, teachers integrate the general education courses into the automotive program curriculum.
Students write papers and give speeches on automotive-related issues, and all of the math involves calculations they can actually use on the job.
Don’t mistake that for being too easy, though.
“I feel like I can’t hang with it some days,” Wilson said.
He graduated from high school 20 years ago and never took an algebra class in his life.
Now, he finds himself solving equations and problems with his 15-year-old daughter.
He toughs it through the math and writing to get to the part he loves — learning about vehicles.
And Wilson has learned a lot.
The institute brought in a trainer just for a lesson on hybrid vehicles, he said. Wilson never had the skills to work on hybrids before.
Wilson said learning about the latest automotive advances will likely be the difference between a job that pays $8 an hour and one that pays $18 an hour.
He said there are cars out in California that basically drive themselves now.
“Imagine what they pay the guy who knows how to work on that,” he said. “They pay him dearly.”
Erny said the students are using top-of-the-line equipment to learn. Ivy Tech spent $330,000 on new equipment, he said.
“It’s a huge help,” he said. “We’ve been able to simulate a dealership setting.”
They have state-of-the-art tire alignment equipment and are able to bring in training simulators when students are learning about electrical work.
The institute’s partners at Snap-on Tools come in and make sure all of that equipment and the curriculum is up to industry standards, Erny said.
“They come in and evaluate us,” he said. “It’s important to have that industry support and validation.”
The company also provides training for some technical certifications, Those certifications help students build a portfolio of qualifications to show to potential employers, Erny said.
Erny has invited business leaders to come see the Automotive Institute Jan. 31. He said he wants to create awareness among businesses in the community.
“We want them to see the quality and professionalism of the education,” Erny said. “Eventually, we want businesses and industries to come looking for our students.”
Erny said the program got off to a better start than he expected.
There are only eight students right now, but all of them are still on track to graduate within a year, institute instructor Jim Bonham said.
It’s set up as a self-paced program where students can work as fast or as slow as they want.
“It seems like the students feed off each other,” he said. “The ones who know a little bit more are helping the ones who don’t know as much.”
The students are a mix of recent high school graduates and people who have been in the workforce for years.
But that generation gap hasn’t been an issue, Bonham said. The younger students teach the older ones how to use the computers and emails, he said. The older students offer helpful mechanical tips that they’ve picked up during their years of work.
Wilson said he’s benefited from the small class sizes. He’s gotten more one-on-one time with his instructors.
Erny said he expects the enrollment to continue to go up through the rest of the year.
It’s taken other Ivy Tech institutes a year to reach full capacity. For Kokomo’s Automotive Institute, that’s 20 students.
Erny said at some point, he expects demand for the program to exceed available space. When that happens, his goal is to expand and create more spots.
At the same time, Ivy Tech officials will be looking to bring other institute programs to the Kokomo region.
Within a year, they’d like to add more, Erny said.
A machine tool program and welding program may be coming to the area next, he said.
“That’s based off the job needs of the area,” Erny said. “We want programs that have high demand.”
Wilson is a proponent of the Automotive Institute. In fact, he’s been telling everyone he knows about it, he said.
“It’s something this town needed,” he said.