Grad Finds Satisfying Career Through Alabama's CARCAM Program

Five years ago, Stephanie Luster, 31, says she mapped out her career path. She applied for the nursing program at Central Alabama Community College (CACC) in Alexander City. Her goal: to earn an associate degree and become a registered nurse. But Luster also recalls reading about the automotive training program and decided that if the college did not accept her application for nursing school, the automotive program would be her “back-up plan.” 

Luster won acceptance into the nursing program in 2011. But after a few classes, she decided to make the switch to the automotive program. 

“I ended up getting scholarships, ” says Luster, “and that’s pretty much what made me stick with it.” 

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Luster went on to earn an associate in applied science degree in automotive manufacturing technology, and now works as a technician at C&J Tech, a private, Tier 2 injection molding company in Alexander City. At C&J Tech, Luster and her fellow workers make vehicle parts for auto companies like Hyundai, Nissan and Kia. 

“I never thought I would be in manufacturing, ” says Luster, “but working at C&J Tech, and doing the technician side of it, I found what I love doing.”

Luster’s alma mater, CACC, is just one of 14 community colleges and technical schools around the state that belong to what is called the Consortium for Alabama Regional Center for Automotive Manufacturing (CARCAM), an outreach program that is designed to produce highly skilled technicians for work in advanced manufacturing.

Support for CARCAM comes from the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education (ATE) division. The ATE program supports efforts to prepare skilled technicians for industry sectors like vehicle manufacturing. 

Participating CARCAM colleges and technical schools collaborate with vehicle manufacturers and suppliers across Alabama to develop and offer courses that are relevant for the industry today, as well as internships, cooperative education programs and apprenticeships. CARCAM’s industry partners have included Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama, Honda Manufacturing of Alabama and Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama, as well as Lear Corporation in Montgomery and Robinson Foundry in Alexander City. 

Although classes can vary from school to school, CARCAM offers courses ranging from automotive concepts, computer integrated manufacturing, electronics and robotics to principles of refrigeration or basic and advanced CAD. 

Program graduates can earn an automotive manufacturing technology degree, which qualifies them for jobs with vehicle manufacturing companies as well as Tier 1 and 2 suppliers.

At CACC, Luster studied topics such as AC-DC fundamentals, introduction to blueprint reading and hydraulics and pneumatics, among others, to earn her degree. 

“For hands on training, we had welding classes that allowed us to learn how to program robots and machine shop classes with hands-on drills, presses and milling machines, ” she says. “I also learned about servo logic controllers and took an injection molding class. That was an elective class and, looking back, I’m glad I took it because that’s what I do now.”

Michael Mann, one of Luster’s instructors at CACC, who is also the director of workforce development, says students can find well-paid jobs in the industry. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly wage for workers in motor vehicle manufacturing is around $29.31 an hour. For workers involved with motor vehicle parts manufacturing, the average hourly rate is $19.80. 

“It’s a very good career opportunity, ” says Mann. “It’s high-demand, and companies are looking for people with technical expertise. 

“You can start out as entry level, but as soon as you specialize in a particular technical field, you have a great opportunity for growth inside the company. That’s something high school students should consider.” 

Mann says that while many students who enter the CARCAM program are recent high school graduates, the program also attracts a large number of technicians in advanced manufacturing who want to upgrade their skills. 

He remembers Luster as being an inquisitive student who performed well in her classes. 

“She’s very detailed, ” he says. “The questions she asked were legitimate questions that the rest of the classes wanted the answers to. She had a good work ethic and performed well in her labs and ended up with short-term certificates and a degree.” 

Luster says she was often the only female in her classes, but found that she had a knack for the subject matter. 

“I had some great teachers, ” she says. “Not only did I catch on quickly, but my mentor, Michael White, showed he cared for his students. He strengthened our minds for this career path. He pushed me further, and that gave me confidence as a female in this field. He always said that I can do anything I set my mind to.” 

To help pay for school, in addition to having a Pell grant, Luster says she applied for and won two scholarships, including one from CARCAM and one from the Southern Automotive Women’s Forum, a nonprofit professional organization that promotes the education, scholarship and professional development of women in the automotive industry in the South.

Luster now works full time at C&J Tech performing a number of tasks such as set up, start up and shut down of machines and molds. “I maintain cleanliness, safety and functionality of mold components, along with any documentation, ” she says. “I also operate robots, forklifts and overhead cranes.”

“Trouble shooting (for) poor quality parts is the most challenging part of my job. Having an understanding of the history process, mold, machine and material helps me determine what has changed and verify the result of any changes I made.”

Jimmy Brock, C&J Tech’s human resources manager, says that so far, besides Luster, the company has hired one other CARCAM graduate. 

“I think the program serves a very important, useful purpose for Tier I and Tier II suppliers such as ourselves, ” says Brock. “It really helps when you select someone like them from the program. It gives you a head start.” Brock says the company always needs skilled technicians who have the skills to operate and repair the injection and assembly equipment. 

“We also look for quality engineers who can work with us on our programs and processes to make sure that we put out an excellent product with limited to zero defects, ” Brock says.

Finding qualified skilled workers like Luster, however, is often challenging, he says. “It becomes highly competitive for us because there is such a demand in our area, ” says Brock. “We compete with companies in Auburn, Montgomery and Sylacauga.” 

Luster says she hopes to one day enroll in college to study engineering or business administration. But for now, she says, she loves her work at C&J Tech. 

“I really enjoy the fast-paced work environment and interaction with operators, ” she says. “Knowing I’ve repaired the parts is most rewarding and satisfying, and that alone is why I love my job.”

TEXT By Gail allyn Short // Photos By Cary norton

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