Return to story
Germanna's automotive training facility near Stafford Regional Airport
Wilson works under the hood with Jesse Powers (left)
Instructor Brent Wilson (in blue) teaches a class for automotive technicians
Instructor Brent Wilson leads the classroom discussion at Germanna Community College's automotive training center, which opened this fall after moving from Culpeper.
By PAMELA GOULD
At 47, Carlos Suarez is one of the oldest students in Germanna Community College's automotive technology program.
But the timing of his career change means he's among the first students to take the course at the college's new state-of-the-art facility in Stafford County.
Classes started in August in a 15,000-square-foot Automotive Technology Center off U.S. 1 just north of Centreport Parkway. The center includes a classroom, a 24-station computer lab and two automotive labs with four bays each.
Germanna moved its automotive program from Culpeper County to Stafford this summer because the former site needed extensive renovation and cost $3,000 a month to heat.
The move places the school and students in a better position to serve the region's auto industry, since the majority of auto dealers in the Fredericksburg area are concentrated along the U.S. 1 corridor in Stafford and Spotsylvania counties.
With a perennial shortage of automotive technicians, the program is seen as a win for employers and graduates.
Though the relocation means longer commutes for students coming from Culpeper and Orange counties, instructor and department head Brent Wilson said he hopes to develop partnerships with dealers in those areas. The goal is to arrange for students to get experience in shops close to home that could lead to jobs.
Angel Alarcon, 20, lives in the Unionville area of Orange and carpools with classmate Phillip Snellings, 22, of the Wilderness area of Spotsylvania. Their commute may prove profitable in the long run, as the pair are considering starting a truck-repair business together.
Alarcon is getting both career studies certificates offered by Germanna. By the end of spring semester, he will have completed the 24-credit automotive technician certificate and the 26-credit automotive diagnostician certificate. Each program can be completed in a year.
In March 2011, when Germanna President David Sam announced the partnership that was bringing automotive training to Stafford, he said he expected enrollment to grow quickly.
Wilson said that has already begun, with the program adding a section of classes for fall semester for 20 additional students, bringing the term's enrollment to almost 60.
That includes about a half dozen students from James Monroe High School in Fredericksburg who enrolled as part of the college's dual enrollment program.
James Monroe is the first high school in the region to establish a dual enrollment program for automotive training, but Germanna hopes to soon have similar arrangements set up with other high schools in the region, college spokesman Mike Zitz said.
Sam has said the facility can handle as many as 150 students.
Stafford's Economic Development Authority provided a $75,000 grant to help construct the building, which the college leases from Fredericksburg-based commercial real estate developer Michael Adams, owner of JON Properties.
PASSION AND PRAGMATISM
Monday morning, students began in the classroom, learning the nuances of cambers, casters and toes for a lesson on alignments.
After a short break, they moved to the adjoining bays to apply their knowledge.
Suarez, who lives in Culpeper and spent 24 years repairing office equipment, brought in his 1997 BMW Z3 for his team to work on since the sports car needed front-end work.
Students primarily work on cars donated by manufacturers or private individuals, but they also work on a fellow student's car if it needs repairs they are studying.
Used cars provide the opportunity to see real-life wear and tear; new cars give students a chance to learn about the latest advances, Wilson said.
The goal is to provide a broad variety of experiences for students by having them work on all types of cars, using all the tools of the trade.
"We'd really like to have a couple hybrids," he added.
A handful of students worked together on Monday, removing a tie rod, the lower control arm and bushings from Suarez's car, applying their book knowledge on suspensions and steering.
Suarez is taking classes in person and online this semester to get his auto technician certificate.
As someone with a long-held love for cars, Suarez said, he enjoys gaining a deeper understanding of vehicle maintenance and repair. But his interest goes beyond passion to the pragmatic.
"My goal is to open my own shop," Suarez said. "I've already owned my own business, so I'd rather work for myself."
Pamela Gould: 540/735-1972