On a recent sunny afternoon, a slew of wrecked vehicles rested inside one of the newest buildings on Metropolitan Community College’s South Omaha Campus. Amid the cracked bumpers and dinged doors, a small number of students, teachers and administrators see opportunity.
That opportunity comes in the form of Metro’s new $32 million Automotive Training Center, a state of the art facility that houses the college’s automotive programs. The courses prepare students for careers as auto technicians — an in-demand field that promises plenty of good paying jobs.
Measuring just over 100,000 square feet, the two-story building houses the automotive technology and auto collision technology programs, as well as general education classrooms and a welding lab. Metro, which announced its plans to build the center three years ago, paid for half of the project. The other half came from private donations.
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“It has really been designed to be multipurpose,” said Scott Broady, associate dean of Metro’s industrial technology program.
The automotive technology and auto collision technology programs previously were located in separate and significantly smaller facilities. The automotive technology program was housed at Metro’s neighboring Mahoney Building, while the auto collision program was at the college’s Applied Technology Center near the Interstate 80 Irvington exit.
The new building’s size also allows dedicated space for other vehicle training programs such as the Toyota Technician Training and Education Network (T-TEN) program. Through that program, students like Tony Abbott, an 18-year-old from Kansas City, Missouri, can learn the ins and outs of Toyota and Lexus vehicles.
With Toyota technician certifications in addition to their associate degrees, Abbott and his Metro peers will have an advantage should they apply for technician jobs at Toyota dealerships, said Mark Wulf, a Toyota T-TEN Metro instructor.
“When they come out, they’ve got a career already lined up at a dealership,” Wulf said.
That’s exactly what Abbott, who started at Metro in July, plans to do. Having worked at Legends Toyota, which is owned by Baxter Auto Group in Kansas City, since August 2020, Abbott said the dealership’s general manager recommended Metro’s Toyota T-TEN program.
“I might as well work for the company that’s most reliable,” Abbott said, citing the build quality of Toyotas.
Nationally, there appears to be a growing need for auto technicians. A 2020 report released by the TechForce Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for transportation technician students, stated an estimated 260,989 new auto and collision techs may be needed over the next three years.
Closer to home, a search on two leading job websites for “automotive technician” jobs in Omaha returned hundreds of postings, with some offering pay in the neighborhood of $75,000 per year.
Broady said auto technicians in general can enjoy a starting salary anywhere from $40,000 to $45,000. Within three years, he said some technicians can make a salary in the six figures based on the commission they earn.
The opening of Metro’s new center also comes as the auto industry appears to be gradually transitioning to hybrid and electric vehicles.
While teaching students how to work on internal combustion engines is still a substantial part of Metro’s automotive curriculum, it also will include a course on repairing hybrid electric vehicles.
Abbott said he’s looking forward to taking the new hybrid electric course.
“I’ll be kind of a rare commodity to dealerships,” he said.
On the collision side, which includes repairs and automotive refinishing, the increased space allowed Metro to purchase new equipment used by auto body shops, such as a bench rack frame alignment system. Students can use the machine to secure wrecked vehicles in place and repair them.
“Our goal really is to try to train these technicians and these students to become great entry level technicians that are familiar with the equipment they’re going to use in industry,” said Joseph Baker, an auto collision instructor.
Baker also said that automotive faculty are hoping to expand Metro’s enrollment with the new training center. Currently, the collision program averages about 60 students every quarter.
“We’re really looking to double that. We have the size to do that now in this facility. We’d love to see more,” he said.
A prime recruiting pitch comes in the form of a second-story walkway where people, including potential students, can look down into the shop and safely observe what current students are working on.
“They can look down into the shop without coming in and needing to wear personal protective equipment,” Baker said. “The building in general is better for education because it mimics what the students see in local industry.”
Jim Champion, a pathway coordinator at Metro’s South Omaha campus, said Metro works with industry partners to find students and turn them into skilled employees. That includes Abbott, whose schooling is being paid for by Baxter Auto Group.
“We help kind of think outside the box and help industry think outside the box to recruit new employees,” Champion said. “It’s a win-win for everybody.”