HAMILTON - Automotive Technician students at Bevill State Community College (BSCC)-Hamilton Campus and Sumiton Campus can now train and learn using new Mercedes-Benz SUV vehicles, which were donated to the school.
BSCC and Mercedes-Benz held a special event on Thursday, Dec. 6, at the Bevill State Business and Career Center in Hamilton, introducing the new Mercedes-Benz Technician and Mechatronics Apprenticeship Program available on the Hamilton and Sumiton campuses.
Concluding the event, Mercedes-Benz Vice-President of Human Resources Rolf Wrona presented BSCC President Dr. Kim Ennis with keys to a brand-new Mercedes-Benz vehicle, which will be used as training vehicle in the school’s Automotive Technician course.
Ennis said that the vehicle will provide automotive students with the chance to have hands-on experience with a state-of-the-art vehicle.
Wrona explained that the vehicle is a trial unit and is not even expected to be introduced into the market until next year.
“We’re proud to be here—it’s a really nice campus—and we’re proud to kick off this partnership,” Wrona said.
Twenty-five years ago, Wrona explained that the Vance plant was a first-of-its-kind venture for the German automotive maker.
It was the first automotive plant at that time in the State of Alabama and the first Mercedes-Benz plant to be built outside of Germany, producing the company’s first luxury SUV.
“I think back to that time and the question was, ‘Coming to Alabama? With people who have never built Mercedes-Benz vehicles before?’” Wrona said. “It was a challenge.”
The plant began with a 1,000-member team in a 1-million-square-foot facility, producing 60,000 vehicles a year.
Now, the company has grown to a 3,800-member team in a 6-million-square-foot facility, producing upwards of 300,000 vehicles a year—around 900 to 1,200 per day.
“I think Alabama gets a checkmark for ‘Can we build cars?’” Wrona said.
The Vance location is manufacturing the Mercedes-Benz’s fourth-generation GLE, which was formerly the M-Class, the SUV, the GLS SUV, the C-Class for the North American market and the GLE Coupe.
Wrona said that the latest models of cars being produced in Vance contain as many as 100 different computers, lane sensors for self-driving capabilities, touchscreen instrument panels, voice-command programming and even hand-motion sensors for gesture controls.
The company official noted that Mercedes-Benz has committed to producing a full-electric SUV. The batteries for those vehicles will has be produced in Vance.
“Huge technology right now, but there is even more coming in the next few years,” Wrona said.
The challenge for the German car-maker, Wrona explained, is having a workforce who can keep up with the moving technology.
“We have a need for more technical students,” Wrona said. “We’ve looked at community colleges across the state and have chose BSCC to partner with us because of its good reputation.
“Kudos to BSCC for having this program here.”
The Mercedes-Benz official said that the co-op was a tremendous opportunity and a “win-win-win” for the manufacturer, BSCC and residents looking for a career in the automotive industry.
Wrona said that the company has found partnerships with the state’s community college system successful. So far, there have been 107 students who have completed co-op programs with the Vance manufacturing plant and have been hired as technicians.
Out of those 107, Wrona said that 23 have already been placed in leadership roles. He says six others have made impressive transitions into the company’s repair department, which he expects to only become more common.
“The feedback that were getting about these students is that they move into repair and they already have such a strong aptitude and knowledge of electrical systems, they can move in and be very productive very quickly,” Wrona said. “That is a tough move.”
The apprenticeship program
BSCC Dean of Instruction Dr. Leslie Hartley said the main question she is asked when talking about the program is, “How do I get in?”
“First thing is first—enroll at BSCC-Hamilton Campus,” Hartley said, “then chose automotive department as your major and then apply to enter the program.”
Hartley said the application process is much like a real-life experience, which involves an assesment and interview.
The “learn-and-earn” program, which has been months in the making, will offer tuition and summer apprenticeships for accepted applicants, as well as the possibility of securing a career with Mercedes-Benz after earning an associate’s degree.
In an automotive student’s second semester, if students maintain a 3.0 grade-point average or above, Mercedes-Benz is offering to pay 50 percent of a student’s tuition and fees once accepted into the program.
The manufacturer is offering to pay 100 percent of an apprentice’s tuition in their third and fourth semesters at BSCC-Hamilton or BSCC-Sumiton.
Co-op students will also be given summer jobs at the plant in Vance making $16 an hour, given a housing allowance and receiving on-site automotive and leadership training.
Their second summer in the apprenticeship, they will be able to make $17 an hour.
Hartley said that the plant would also allow willing students to work overtime.
After completing the program, those students have the opportunity to apply for full-time positions with the company.
Hartley said that enrollment is currently open to students in Bevill State’s Automotive Services Departments in Hamilton and Sumiton.
“One of our jobs at Bevill State is to provide a workforce,” Hartley said. “This type of partnership allows that to happen.”
The program is expected to be quickly expanded and offered to high school students through dual enrollment.
College critical for Northwest Alabama
State House District 17 Rep. Tracy Estes, R-Winfield, commended BSCC and Mercedes-Benz for working together and said that he was excited to see how it will benefit students in his district.
“I’m a product of this system,” Estes said, explaining that he attended Brewer State Junior College, which is now the BSCC-Fayette Campus. “This system is in my blood and I’m very grateful for BSCC, but in particular, the Hamilton Campus and what the two-year system means to the State of Alabama.
“We can’t forget the role that our two-year colleges play.”
Estes said that former Gov. George Wallace founded the two-year college system in the 1960s to bring college education to rural Alabama.
Estes said that he, Ennis and even ACCS Chancellor Jimmy Baker have had chances to discuss the importance of the Hamilton Campus and the entire BSCC system.
“This college is such a critical part of what we are trying to do here in Northwest Alabama economically and educationally,” Estes said.
Ironically, Automotive Technician, along with Machine Tool Technology and Advanced Design Engineering, was one of the courses Bevill State president Dr. Kim Ennis had announced in April would be closing on the Hamilton Campus.
BSCC said that these programs were being closed in an effort to stem deficit-spending that had been occurring at the college.
These programs were being considered due to poor viability ratings and course redundancy across the Bevill State system, according to Ennis.
The Alabama Commission of Higher Education provides a formula to determine a course’s viability in two-year colleges, which includes enrollment and completion data.
After a large community response to the cuts, Bevill State said that the career technical programs would be remaining and that the Alabama Community College System (ACCS) would be assisting the school system in making career technical programs successful.
Ennis said that this aid from the state office helped to forge the apprenticeship program.
She expects the new co-op program to improve the automotive course’s viability rating as the program requires students to earn their associate’s degree. She also said that she believes the new venture will help to solidify the automotive course on the Hamilton Campus.
Ennis said that Marion County residents could expect to see more developments starting in at the beginning of 2019.
“The problem we have in the State of Alabama is not job availability—they are there,” Ennis said during an address at the event. “The problem is having people in the pipeline to go into those jobs. The two-year college system is a really good place to come to look for that workforce.”
Ennis said that the program will stir interest in Bevill State’s automotive department as well as presents a model for what she hopes other businesses and industries will desire to do.
“This is going to be shot-in-the-arm for our program,” Ennis said.
See complete story in the Journal Record.