Erie Institute of Technology calls the building at 122 W. 13th St. in Erie, PA an auto body technician lab.
But it looks, sounds, smells and feels more like a garage, complete with the scent of Bondo that hangs in the air, the sight of sparks flying from a body grinder and the gentle whoosh of sand paper polishing a car door to a glassy, smooth finish.
The new classroom, which opened in September, is a place where rusted, dented and broken cars and trucks come for a new lease on life.
More importantly, the school, which has is headquarters at the Millcreek Mall complex, sees this building, outfitted with a lift, paint booth and frame-straightening machine, as a place where students can take the first steps toward a new career.
The auto body curriculum entered the planning stages after school officials had a clear answer to one key question, said Paul Fitzgerald, director of Erie Institute of Technology. "To me, the most important thing is are there jobs out there in that field? The answer was a resounding yes," he said.
An analysis by the federal government supports that conclusion. The Occupational Outlook Handbook, produced by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, reports that another 15,300 auto body technicians will be needed between now and 2024. That's an increase of 9 percent, a rate of growth that exceeds the rate of most jobs.
Instructors John Lent and Dave Little, both veterans of the auto body business, say demand is likely to be particularly high in the Erie area, where a lot of auto body specialists are expected to retire in the next few years. Thanks in part to wages that had been stagnant, but are rising once again, few people in this area have entered the profession in recent years, Little said. That means there should be plenty of opportunities for students who can expect to emerge not as specialists, but qualified as entry-level technicians.
Kirk Griffith, 44, who worked at GE Transportation until he was laid off in Feb. 5, said he used to do body work years ago and saw the two-year program at EIT as a way to update his skills.
But like another former GE Transportation worker, 51-year-old Ray Ramey, who used to do touch-up paint work on GE locomotives, he sees the auto body education as his best shot at returning to GE Transportation.
Both Griffith and Ramey say they hope to obtain their painting credentials with the hope of winning a painting job when business picks up at GE Transportation.
Griffith and Ramey aren't unusual, Lent said, explaining that the program includes a number of former GE employees, most of whom receive money for tuition under the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which is available to employees who lose jobs due to foreign competition.
Most of the younger students in the program, which has an enrollment of about 40, are planning careers in body shops or working as adjusters for insurance companies, painters or auto glass technicians.
"It's about a 50-50 mix," Lent said. "The younger ones are looking to do it so they can get a job in the field."
But many of the older students, particularly those who worked at GE Transportation, are hoping to return to a position there, especially in the high-demand field of painting.
"GE won't let anybody paint unless they have the paperwork behind it," he said.
Neither Griffith nor Ramey, however, is betting everything on turning back the clock.
Aside from painting, Griffith said he's being trained in welding and a long list of other skills.
"They are all good skills for other jobs," he said.
Lent said he enjoys the work.
"To me, it's very rewarding," he said. "You take a guy who doesn't know one end of a wrench from another, and all of a sudden, he is tearing down cars."
Fitzgerald said students learn their craft both in the classroom and in the shop, where they work on their own cars as well as those provided by friends, faculty members and sometimes outsiders who are willing to take a chance on a student.
Little said he's convinced that most of the students--at least those prepared to pursue a career in auto body--are going to be successful.
"Anyone who wants it is going to get a job," he said.
We would like to thank GoErie.com for reprint permission.