Jul. 28—Andrew Carlton was a student at Samford University for a year, majoring in marketing, but when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, he returned home to Huntsville and made a drastic change in his plans.
Carlton enrolled in Calhoun Community College’s automotive technology program, which offers a two-year associate’s degree for college students and a dual-enrollment program for high school students, giving them entry-level skills for the automotive service and repair industry.
The 20-year-old Carlton was among the first cohort of students that started getting hands-on training in August at Calhoun’s new 23,400-square-foot Automotive Technology Building on the south end of the U.S. 31 campus. Calhoun students were being trained a year earlier at a temporary rented space in Priceville.
“I love the decision I made,” said Carlton, a car enthusiast since he was a child who will earn an associate’s degree in May. “It’s working out really well.”
Training at the facility — which cost about $10 million including the equipment — covers braking systems, steering and suspension, drive train and axles, air conditioning and electrical systems.
“They’re getting experience in everything they’ll run into in a shop,” said lead instructor Lewis Nall. “Students will touch everything bumper to bumper on a car.” For example, the facility features four different types of brake lathes, a traditional and touchless tire changer and other equipment so students are ready to go to work at any shop or dealership.
Nall can “create” any type of issue on the trainers to give students experience fixing a problem. In one of the classrooms, students can work on trainers that simulate components from power windows to injection systems.
Students are able to find work at area dealerships. Woody Anderson Ford in Huntsville, Mercedes-Benz of Huntsville, Century Automotive Group and Bentley Automotive Group, both in Huntsville, Serra Toyota of Decatur and Champion Auto Group in Athens are either employing current Calhoun students and students who have graduated or are in the process of working with Calhoun to hire students as interns, according to Nall.
According to Calhoun, in the automotive program for the fall 2020 semester, three students received an associate of applied science degree and 11 received short-term certificates, and for the spring 2021 semester, two students received an associate of applied science degree and nine received short-term certificates.
Calhoun figures show that 33 traditional students and 41 dual enrollment students were enrolled in automotive classes in the fall 2020 semester, with 29 traditional students declaring automotive technology as their major. In the spring 2021 semester, 38 traditional students and 29 dual enrollment students were taking automotive classes, and 34 traditional students had declared automotive technology as their major.
For the summer semester, nine traditional students and three dual enrollment students are taking automotive classes, and six traditional students have declared automotive technology as their major.
Dual-enrollment students come from Career Academies of Decatur and Madison County Career Tech Center.
Nall’s goal is to have 75 to 100 students a day in multiple classes. COVID-19 hurt Nall’s ability to build enrollment, but students in the program have plenty of room to spread out in the facility and maintain social distance.
Nineteen-year-old Chris Harris, of Madison, who started the program in August, would like to work at the Mercedes-Benz assembly plant in Vance after graduating in May, then move on to a dealership. Ultimately, “I want to open my own custom car and truck accessories shop,” said Harris, who now works part-time at H&H Truck and Outdoor in Huntsville.
Wesley Cornelison, 20, of Trinity, is working part-time at Serra Toyota in Decatur while in the Calhoun program. He’ll finish up his associate’s degree in May, and his goal is to move up in the automotive dealer industry.
“I heard this was a way to make money, but I enjoy it too,” Cornelison said. “It’s fun learning how things work and are designed.”
Parker Barlow, 19, of Athens, is now working as an intern at Mercedes-Benz of Huntsville, which will eventually turn into a full-time job, and he’ll continue with night classes in the fall semester. Ultimately, he would like to have his own shop.
“I love working on hot rods,” he said.
Carlton said the Calhoun program is a good fit for him.
“I love cars and learning more about how they work,” he said. In the future, “I’d love to drive race cars,” but if that doesn’t happen, “I want to own a dealership so I can give back to the community that raised me.”