Isaac Salamanca, a Northwest-Shoals Community College student, went from high school to college with the full intention of becoming an electrician. His thoughts changed after a F.A.M.E. apprenticeship opportunity at North American Lighting in Muscle Shoals that pays to split his time between work and his college classes.
Isaac is among many of Alabama community college students now pursuing careers in the state’s vibrant automotive industry. According to Made in Alabama the state’s automotive industry builds more than 1 million cars and nearly twice as many engines each year, with more than 56,000 residents already working in the field. As Jefferson State Community College welding instructor Brody Scott says, it’s an industry worth taking a look at if you’re interested in building a career.
“As a young person or as someone changing careers, if you want to work you’ll be able to work in the automotive industry because there’s always a job for you,” he said. “There are always promising aspects of our field. You take a year of your life in training and you more than double your earning potential.”
Automotive jobs and the community college certifications and programs that fuel the industry take some work, but the income is worth it. According to Mark Keech, Director of Operations at NAL where Isaac works, some workers can start at about $21 an hour and within six months obtain a raise. He said the company employs about 1,300 workers. The company nationwide is responsible for about 23% of the market share on lamps on vehicles, he said.
“Here our industry is very fast-paced. It’s very exciting and what I like most about it is the technology and how quickly it changes,” he said.
Those changes continue to ensure the safety of workers in the industry, according to Shelton State Machine Tool Technology instructor Brian Cunningham.
“There’s a big misconception that you’ll go into a facility and it’ll be dirty. I don’t think people realize that a lot of the facilities have air conditioning and OSHA and safety regulations – it’s really come a long way,” he said.
Isaac said the misconceptions are why he initially did not consider the automotive industry.
“My parents even warned me that it’s dangerous and that I’d get hurt, but when I came to NAL the first thing they enforced is safety and enough protocols in keeping one safe,” he said.
“One can do work safely and efficiently and not even get a cut, so even though there are dangers, there’s enough safety protocols and regulations in place.”
Don Wilcher, Director of Manufacturing and Technology at Jefferson State, and Phil Papes of NAL agreed: in addition to the technical skills to succeed in Alabama’s auto industry a person must also have a good attitude.
“You have to keep practicing, practicing and practicing in regard to your technical skills, and in addition to that at Jefferson State, the skill sets we develop are universal company-based skills: communication, collaboration, contemplation, critical thinking and creativity,” Wilcher said.