A smooth, buttery-yellow paint transforms the Volkswagen Beetle parked in a hot garage in an industrial area of Tampa.
Lianna Smith, 20, strives to make the Bug picture-perfect. She knows if she masters the painting technique, she'll have a future just as sunny as the paint spots dotting her clothes.
Smith is in her second year studying auto collision repair at the Ybor City Campus Training Center, run by Hillsborough Community College. Bolstered by a $1.6 million grant from the federal Economic Development Administration, the center teaches get-your-hands-dirty skills that can translate into big bucks.
Not only does she have a shot at $80,000 to $100,000 after only a few years on the job, she already has employers lined up to hire her.
"I'm in collision, and I pulled my boyfriend in to be a service technician," Smith says. "It is so worth it."
On Monday, Matt Erskine, U.S. acting assistant secretary for economic development, toured the facility with U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, HCC president Ken Atwater, and a number of local employers from the automobile industry.
"You really are on the front lines of where education and the workforce meet," Erskine told the group. "You're delivering trained workers to jobs that are going unfilled."
Castor recalled the battle to get the funding in 2009.
"We fought tooth and nail for this modest investment here at HCC," she says. "It creates a job pipeline for the students into local businesses."
The grant, which was matched by an additional $1.6 million from HCC, renovated the property and started the automotive technology program.
In the fall of 2013, a sheet metal fabrication program will begin, in conjunction with Pemco World Air Services, which provides heavy maintenance and modification of aircraft. Also beginning in 2013 is a welding technician program, begun at the urging of Port of Tampa officials.
Keith Britts, director of fixed operations for Ferman Automatic Management Services, confirms the high salaries for auto repair, particularly for painters.
"I hire a lot of the guys out of here," he says. "They have a higher success rate on the job than the guys who come from the street."
In addition to training car mechanics, the center houses the fire and police academies.
Jack Evans, dean of technical programs for the Ybor facility, says he likes it that the groups mingle on campus.
"The mechanics develop a good feeling about the cops because they get to know them here," he says.
The 150 or so automotive technology students, including four women, seem determined to stick it out and learn all they can, he says. Most are in the mid- to late-20s.
"You walk in the classrooms here and you can hear a pin drop," Evans says. "I can assure you, this is not how they would have been in high school. They are paying attention. They also learn good habits, like, if you're supposed to be at work at 8, you don't show up at 8:30."
For those who want to open their own businesses, the school also offers small business courses. Students who decide to go on to a four-year school can take the English, math and other required courses.
With the certificate of completion, students are almost assured of walking into a good job.
"The president [Barack Obama] has been a huge champion of community colleges," Erskine says. "The most successful are the ones that bring in the employers to say what training is needed."