LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) --  Jefferson Community and Technical College will become a hub for training automotive technicians for Mercedes Benz dealerships this fall with the launch of an apprenticeship program that officials say will put the college on the map.

“There is nothing like this in the country; this is the first one of its kind for Mercedes,” said Mike Stith, director of recruiting for the Peterson Automotive Collection, which includes Tafel Motors, the only Mercedes dealer in Louisville, and two Mercedes dealerships in Ohio.

The JCTC-Mercedes program will be located in a warehouse in Louisville’s Portland neighborhood for up to three years before the college can free up space at its technical campus at 8th and Chestnut streets.

Students will spend a year alternating  between eight-week periods taking college courses on electronics and fluid mechanics and working on Mercedes-donated cars at the JCTC warehouse; and eight-week periods working at the service department of a dealership that is within about a 5-hour drive of Louisville.

It’s the latest step in the college’s efforts to recruit and train more automotive technicians, the type of middle-income, skilled workers that employers – particularly dealerships – are constantly seeking.

“The goal is to give the dealerships the skilled technicians that we desperately need, and I think that this is the best way to do that,” Stith said.

Mercedes’ corporate office confirmed the partnership but declined to comment, as did Gov. Matt Bevin’s labor cabinet, which is involved as part of Bevin’s efforts to revive apprenticeships.

Some details are still being worked out ahead of a formal announcement next month with Bevin and executives from Mercedes’ U.S. headquarters in Atlanta.

Mercedes Benz already operates a 16-week in-house technician program called MB Drive at training facilities in Grapevine, Texas; Long Beach, California; Jacksonville, Florida and Norwood, Massachusetts.

Students in the JCTC program will get the same certification offered through MB Drive, but with experience working in dealerships and more than half of the credits needed toward an associate’s degree in applied science.

“We will be the only site in the interior of the United States, so we think it gives us a geographic reach that will be very important for us and for Mercedes,” said Ty Handy, the president of JCTC.

Mercedes Benz already has a partnership with Gwinnett Technical College to train technicians in a two-year program in Lawrenceville, Georgia, according to its website. Mercedes officials declined to say how the JCTC will differ, but officials with the Louisville school emphasized the one-year “accelerated” timeframe and dealership work experience.

Need for technicians "stronger than ever"

Automotive technicians and mechanics in the Louisville area earn on average $39,310 per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That’s lower than the average for all jobs in the area, $45,100. But dealership technicians typically earn more than workers at tire shops and independent mechanics, and exceptional performers can reach $100,000,Stith said.

The key is to excel in a system that pays based on the task – not by the hour. Experienced technicians who need less time to swap brakes or a headlight – or diagnose an electrical problem – earn more money for each hour on the job.

“The next time you are going to do that same job, you’ll be faster, and as you advance in the industry, you’re going to make more money, because you can beat the time,” said Chris Siegel, a technician team leader at Tafel Motors’ service department.

Despite the earning potential, JCTC has had mixed results in recent years with programs meant to churn out technicians for dealers.

A program started with the Greater Louisville Automobile Dealers Association in 2014 has produced 40 to 50 technicians, but the dealers and the college were hoping for many more.

“The numbers have definitely dwindled,” said Scott Roth, the dealers association president. “All I know is, the need for technicians is stronger today than it ever has been.”    

Not everyone thrives in the “flat rate” commission system in which technicians are typically paid.

“I am just not personally the type of person that works well under pressure like that; your whole paycheck and your livelihood depends on how fast you get work done,” said Alyssa Claycomb, who completed the JCTC-dealers association program in 2016 but decided not to become an auto technician.

And while college courses help with concepts – especially as cars are made with more sophisticated electronics – a degree or certificate is not necessary to get into the field.

“We have 4 percent unemployment; you don’t need to go to school to make good money,” said Telly Sellars, dean of technical programs at JCTC.

But officials have high hopes for the Mercedes program, likening it to the Toyota-specific training program, called T-Ten, that JCTC has had for two decades.

While the Toyota and dealers association programs ask students to stay for two years to complete an associate’s degree, the Mercedes program will get them to fulltime work after only a year, Sellars said.

And it will draw students from far beyond the Louisville area, he said.

“I have bigger net to pull from, so the sheer numbers are going to bigger,” Sellars said.

Reach reporter Chris Otts at 502-585-0822, cotts@wdrb.com, on Twitter or on Facebook. Copyright 2018 WDRB News. All rights reserved.