Students enrolled in the automotive technology degree program at Santa Fe Community College require a working car of their own.

Program Director Julia Furry said she has reached out to the city to propose a bus route between the college’s main campus south of the city and the midtown Santa Fe Higher Education Center, where auto tech classroom courses have been held since the program began in 2015.

Hands-on lab sessions, meanwhile, are offered in a 2,000-square-foot industrial building near campus.

The 15 minute-drive is particularly inconvenient for students trying to fit the auto tech program into a work schedule.

But college officials say that will change.

The college is hosting a groundbreaking ceremony at 2 p.m. Wednesday for a new Automotive Technology Center that will combine both parts of the program — classroom work and lab sessions — under one roof on the main campus, helping to streamline the path to employable skills in an industry that’s hiring.

“The statistic I keep hearing is that every single dealership in this state could hire two to three automotive technicians,” Furry said.

Salaries for entry-level automotive technicians range from $38,000 to $47,000, she said.

Speaking of the new center, she added, “This will allow us to accommodate more students faster because, the fact of the matter is, a lot of our students are not right out of high schools; they’re already working two other jobs and don’t have any time to waste trying to get a better-paying career.”

The new building, with a $7 million construction budget funded by a $17 million college bond approved by Santa Fe voters in February 2018, will have 17,000 square feet of space and is expected to be ready for classes by fall 2020.

“I’m looking forward to some elbow room,” said Adjunct Professor Justin Fergus, who commuted to Albuquerque to earn his associate degree in automotive technology after he graduated from Capital High School in 2002.

“When I was in school here,” he said, “there was nowhere to learn these skills, so it’s great to see anyone interested in the automotive trade finally have opportunities in Santa Fe.”

Local car dealerships and mechanics are also happy to see the local community college’s auto tech program — launched in fall 2015 after a similar program shut down at Northern New Mexico College in Española — increase in capacity.

Zach Brandt, the general manager at Capitol Ford Lincoln in Santa Fe, said trade schools in Arizona and Texas have consistently recruited students from New Mexico, who never return to the area to use their skills.

“We want to keep local kids here who will work for us,” said Brandt, who also noted there are more than 30,000 positions available around the country for somebody with an associate degree in automotive technology.

“It’s the number one focus at every dealer meeting I go to,” he said.“We need to grow the workforce with community college programs.”

In addition to the associate degree in automotive technology, Santa Fe Community College also offers seven auto tech certificates, such as brakes and engine repair.

Nathan Sindelar, 24, who graduated in 2013 from the Academy of Technology and the Classics, said he is set to graduate from the community college in December with an associate degree, all seven certificates — and options.

“I wasn’t sure where I was going to work after graduation,” Sindelar said. “The coursework at the program gives me the confidence to apply to independent shops or dealerships all across town.”