Since 1984, the Professional Automotive Training Center on campus has offered programs developed together with dealers and manufacturers — the first of its kind in the U.S., according to Pete Calkins, the center's director.

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Peter Staszak stands next to a dark-blue Honda hoisted into the air and twists a spring back and forth until it snaps neatly into place.

“I knew it shouldn’t be too difficult,” said Staszak, 21, of Kirkland.

“I’ve always been interested in cars. Already in high school I took automotive classes and after graduating worked different jobs like selling clothes before I started this education,” he said.

Staszak is in a growing program at Shoreline Community College that emphasizes close cooperation between the college, auto dealers and manufacturers.

On Dec. 8, he will graduate from the two-year program and take a well-paying job at a Honda dealership.

Since 1984, the Professional Automotive Training Center on campus has offered programs developed together with dealers and manufacturers — the first of its kind in the U.S., according to Pete Calkins, the center’s director.

It has grown steadily to its current 11,000 students. “And we have become a proven model copied by other community colleges,” said Calkins.

In March, the center will begin a construction project that will more than double its size to keep up with growing demand.

The 19,000-square-foot expansion will add 12 car hoists to the existing 18 and two new classrooms to the existing six. Approximately half of the $4 million expansion will be paid for by the state and half by the Puget Sound Automobile Dealers Association and private donors.

Construction is expected to be completed a year from now.

“The expansion will allow us to accept up to 30 percent more students,” said Calkins.

Centerpiece of the center’s educational program are four two-year associate degree programs developed with General Motors, Chrysler, Toyota and Honda.

The manufacturers donate the cars that the students work on, “so they can keep up with the technological developments,” said Calkins.

The center also offers training for Volvo, Hyundai and Kia models and a generic program not related to any specific manufacturer.

Calkins said students could expect to earn between $50,000 and $60,000 on average annually within five years of completing the program.

In the two-year associate degree programs, the cooperation of the school with the dealerships is particularly close. The companies send their trainees to the center — the students alternate one quarter in school and the next one at their dealership.

“We are facing a weak economy and many dealerships aren’t doing well. Of course, that affects the demand for technicians,” Calkins said.

“But we are lucky, because with our special program, we are serving a niche and dealerships wouldn’t send us their trainees if they weren’t interested in offering them a job later. And then, many technicians will retire in the coming years, so there is a high demand for younger ones who know about the latest technology.”

Tuition for the two-year associate degree program is $1,200 per quarter. The sponsoring dealership often pays at least some of the fees.

The center’s building takes up 32,000 square feet. It cost $2.8 million and was paid for by the Puget Sound Automobile Dealers Association, which has offices in the facility.

“Currently the students are working elbow-to-elbow,” said Donald Schultz, former dean of the center but since his retirement works for the association.

“The center is also valuable for the auto dealers because the instructors get updated training regularly so they can teach the students about the state-of-the-art technology,” he said.

Staszak, a trainee of Honda of Kirkland, said he sees it the same way. “I think I got very good insight into how the Honda cars work during my education here. In one quarter, we lifted the motor out of a car and took the entire engine apart into every single screw,” he said. “Then we put it back together — and you know what? It worked.”

The technical education of the associate-degree program is broken into four segments: air/electrical, engine, transmission/brakes and suspension training.

“I can expect a steady job at my auto dealer when I have acquired the degree,” said Staszak.

Brian Slish, service and parts director at Honda of Kirkland, said his company has had very good experience with the center. “It also provides students with soft skills like communication that are definitely needed for the job,” he said.

Honda of Kirkland and Honda Auto Center of Kirkland have the same owner. “We have sent 27 students to the automotive training center. I think that already says something about how important it is for us,” said Slish.

Other schools have sent delegations to the center to check out the educational model. It has been copied in Southern California and Florida, for example.

“Our programs are good examples for how a community college can really serve the community,” Calkins said.

“And our training offers good opportunities in the future: After all, the cars of the future won’t be simpler than the cars of today.”

Georg Kern: 206-464-3283 or gkern@seattletimes.com