December 7, 2023

Two years ago, Chelse Herbold was a food service worker with a bachelor’s degree in geology that wasn’t helping her pay the rent.

Today, Herbold, 28, has an associate’s degree in automotive technology that she earned on the job as the first woman auto technician at West Herr Kia.

Herbold is one of the first graduates of a new SUNY Erie Community College program that was created to produce skilled workers for an industry that’s badly in need of mechanics.

Associate's Degree in auto mechanics

Instructor Mike Coughlin, left, shows students how to recover the refrigerant from the air conditioning system so they can remove the brake booster on a Jaguar. Students from left are Nate Mittelsteadt and Prajwal Dhimal.

In fact, it’s so hard to hire auto technicians that two of the region’s biggest car dealers, West Herr Automotive Group and Northtown Automotive Cos., have partnered with ECC to build a direct pathway to train and hire students.

Northtown even built a classroom, lab space and four dedicated service bays at its new Jaguar/Land Rover dealership in Amherst for its ECC co-op program.

The program produces auto technicians, but it’s a model for future “earn while you learn” partnerships that train workers in in-demand skills and pay them to get on-the-job training while earning their credentials.

People are also reading…

Jay Galligan, a vice president at West Herr, said the program has produced 12 current and 12 soon-to-be employees for the company. The program funnels trained workers to West Herr and Northtown at a time when there are more open jobs than people looking for work.

“We employ over 500 technicians, and we retire 5% to 10% a year, so just to replace our retirees we need 30 or 40 new technicians at any given time to add to our team,” Galligan said. “ECC reached out to us about adding co-op experience to their auto tech program and helped build this model. It has now become a permanent program in the college, and we are thrilled to be part of it.”

Associate's Degree in auto mechanics

Jimmy Ortiz, left, Prakash Pokhrel and Casey Midwick remove a brake booster on a car.

ECC President David Balkin calls the program an example of the partnerships needed between higher education and industry to serve the needs of today’s students and employers.

It also helps ECC by creating a program that it can market as a pathway to a career for students at a time when enrollment is declining.

“SUNY Erie is working with companies who are in competition, but who recognize that a rising tide will lift all boats,” Balkin said.

The partnerships with West Herr and Northtown predated Balkin taking over as ECC president, but he quickly seized on them as an opportunity to develop other feeder programs for worker-strapped employers.

Balkin said ECC and the dealerships see the program “as the way forward for recruiting, training and retaining qualified technicians.”

West Herr Automotive piloted the program at ECC’s Vehicle Technology Training Center in Orchard Park in 2019 and the first class of 12 students, including Herbold, graduated last May. All 12 were immediately hired as full-time technicians at West Herr dealerships. The second class of 12 will graduate this May and are guaranteed jobs as well.

The auto co-op provides more hands-on experience than classroom time and includes time working in paid positions with the hiring dealership, Balkin said.

Associate's Degree in auto mechanics

ECC instructor Mike Coughlin shows the proper use of a line wrench on a break line fitting during class.

Students rotate between spending 7½ weeks working with mentors at a dealership service department and then 7½ weeks of classroom coursework, Balkin said.  The dealers provide tuition assistance and retention bonuses to help them buy their own tools once hired.

When West Herr came aboard as a partner, ECC provided space for the co-op at its Vehicle Tech Training Center in Orchard Park. The site, a former Chevrolet dealership, also houses ECC’s manufacturer-based programs for Ford and Dodge/Fiat/Chrysler technicians.

West Herr provided an architect and funding to make the necessary changes to the facility, including equipment, tools and structural modifications to accommodate the co-op program, said ECC auto tech instructor Vinnie LaVerdi. 

The center has four service bays and downstairs classroom and lab space for the program. LaVerdi and second-year instructor Joe Uhrich devised the curriculum and Uhrich ushered it through state approval process, paving the way for future co-op programs.

Galligan said 20 West Herr technicians are currently serving as mentors – an integral part of the program – where the students work with them as a “second pair of hands” during their paid co-op time.

“The traditional path for recruiting workers is through career fairs, but then, how do you know who anyone is or if they are a good fit?” said West Herr Director of Recruiting Scott Jacobs. “With this program, by the time they graduate we know who they are, they know who we are, and they are part of our team.”

While the West Herr pilot proved successful, ECC lacked space in its Vehicle Training Center to expand it. Enter Northtown Auto. The company had its 11th store in the works and agreed to provide what ECC needed to teach the class and lab segments at the new dealership, which opened in December and welcomed its first students in February.

Northtown Director of Fixed Operations Bill Holm said finding experienced technicians has always been a challenge, but the situation is more critical lately. While the industry is growing, the number of available workers shrunk due to the pandemic and early retirements by older employees.

Associate's Degree in auto mechanics (copy)

“Everyone benefits,” Northtown Director of Fixed Operations Bill Holm said of the program.

At the same time, vehicles are more complex, with computer diagnostics, hybrid and electric technologies requiring more education for technicians servicing newer model vehicles, he said.

Holm said offering a co-op opportunity to auto tech students is unique; a company spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to equip its new dealership for classes even more so. “We are fortunate to have the support and broad thinking from ECC to let this work outside of a traditional campus,” he said.

“Everyone benefits,” Holm added. “Today’s auto techs won’t be successful without an education and understanding of computer systems in today’s automobiles, and we not only need workers, we need educated ones.”

Galligan and Holm said they would expand the auto co-op programs immediately if there was space available. Galligan also chairs the ECC Foundation’s Workforce Committee, which he said is seeking ways to create similar programs for other disciplines.

“The next step is to address, ‘How can we do this with other fields?’ ” he said. “How can we duplicate the success of this program for trades like welding, electrical and plumbing?”

Balkin said the model is not limited to the technical trades. “We are now engaging with the health care and advanced manufacturing industries” to develop new partnerships, he said.

Some of those may replace current programs at ECC’s three campuses. Balkin is working to reorganize the school’s campus operations and recently discontinued several South Campus programs suffering from low enrollment.

He said his goal is to curb declining enrollment at ECC by replacing under-enrolled programs with degrees and credentials for in-demand trades.

He’s also willing to partner with other auto dealerships open to creating classroom and lab space at their stores to expand the vehicle tech co-op program. The auto dealers say they are in great need of technicians for auto body and collision specialists.

Meanwhile, the auto tech co-op has been life-changing for the students.

Herbold was working in food service after graduating from SUNY-Buffalo State with a geology degree and trying to save enough money to get married to her fiancé while living on her own.

She realized she wanted a more lucrative job and her late father “made a good living” as a mechanic. She attended an open house to introduce the ECC program and said, “That’s what I want to do.”

During her first co-op at West Herr, she quickly went from “taking out the garbage and moving tires” to performing oil changes and new car inspections. By the end of her second year, she was rebuilding engines.

She graduated last May into her job as the first female on the West Herr Kia team. She said that felt a little awkward at first, but not for long. “Sometimes I’ll get a bolt free that some of the other techs can’t get,” she said. “It takes leverage.”

Herbold met her goal of saving for a wedding. She’s getting married in August.

Second-year student Marcos Perez, 28, a married father of three, was working the overnight shift at a warehouse before applying to the program.

The biggest attraction: “I am not just going to school, I am making money at the same time,” he said.

He has found himself texting LaVerdi and second-year instructor Gary Bianchi from the co-op “saying ‘OMG, what you taught me last week, I’m applying it here!’ ”

Perez will graduate into a higher-paying, full-time job at West Herr Toyota in May, and he already plans to pursue further credentials in hybrid and electric vehicles.

“Ideally, I would like to be an instructor 20 years down the road,” Perez said. “I could see myself in a building like this teaching the technicians of the future.”