New director drives up SCCC automotive program

NEWTON — After taking over a program that he said had a “rough past,” the coordinator for Sussex County Community College’s automotive education program touted the revamped program and shared his vision for the program’s future, which includes becoming one of the premier programs in the state.

“We want to build the program on campus and become an even stronger competitor with other auto programs,” said Jason Fruge, the coordinator for the college’s automotive education program.

During his half-hour presentation at the Sussex County Community College Board of Trustees meeting last week, Fruge mentioned some of the school’s competition is Lincoln Tech and Brookdale Community College.

“The biggest help for us is the cost issue,” Fruge said. “Lincoln Tech is a 13-month program that costs just over $30,000.” According to the college’s website, a full-time student at SCCC pays about $5,000 per year.

The county college program takes about three years because students also take general education classes such as math, science and English, which are not offered at Lincoln Tech.

As the program grows, Fruge said, the college can consider adding classes during the day and during the summer to help expedite the course.

The program has about 50 students taking classes in everything from basic automotive maintenance to advanced electrical and engine rebuild classes.

Jon Connolly, the school’s president, said that when he was hired in 2015, he wasn’t happy with the state of the school’s automotive program.

“I was happy that we had an automotive program, but students were learning from books and not touching anything,” Connolly said. “We needed to rebrand and repackage the program and we could not do that without a place (for hands-on learning.)”

Since being hired in the spring of 2016, Fruge has made many changes to the program in an effort improve it including bringing in instructors who have a combined 76 years of experience as auto technicians.

“The biggest thing is that all instructors have to be currently active in the field,” Fruge said. “There is no instructor that is less than a B level mechanic. Everyone dealer certified and ASE certified.”

The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, or ASE, is an organization that certifies auto technicians “so they can offer tangible proof of their technical knowledge,” according to its website.

The program has also partnered with local dealerships including Sussex Honda, McGuire Chevrolet, Nielsen Jeep Dodge Ram, Lexus of Route 10 and others to give students hands-on experiences they cannot get on the college’s campus in the school’s R-Building lab near the Horton Mansion.

“Every student out there said, ‘I need hands on.’ They (the dealers) open their doors allowing us to do workshops off campus. We don’t have an alignment machine. We can’t cut brakes. We can’t mount and balance tires,” Fruge said. “These dealerships open their doors and allow us to come in there. Give us cars to work on. Let us use their equipment.”

Fruge said the program also partnered with Intercar Mercedes Benz in Newton, which allows the program to use half of its overflow shop space on Halsey Road in Hampton at night.

“You can sit there all day and go through a book and go upstairs and look on computer, but it changes when you put the car on the lift,” Fruge said.

On campus in the school’s lab there are five work stations, each with a set of basic tools students would need to begin their education.

“This is where they begin learning the assembly and disassembly of parts. The inspection of parts. We hand them a component. Here’s a starter. Here’s a battery. This is what a battery looks like. Here’s a window switch,” Fruge said. “They can’t always be on a car, but this is the basic setup, and then when they get on a car they can take the practical explanation and start to apply it.”

Through the school’s partnership with local dealers, Fruge said he was able to place several students in jobs.

“McGuire Chevy hired three students full-time in the last six months and Sussex Honda hired one,” he said.

In speaking of his goals for the program, Fruge said he wants to continue and grow the program and the relationships that have formed with local dealerships in an effort to gain community recognition for the program’s students.

“Maybe at Sussex Honda there is only one spot, but they are friends with the people at Madison Honda who also have openings,” Fruge said.

Connolly said career technical education, such as the school’s automotive program, is essential and important to the school because if the school does not offer programs where students can go right from the college into the work force, it has not properly done its job.

It is important, he said, so students can have options on what they want to learn.

For more information on the school’s automotive program visit sussex.edu.

Joe Carlson also can be contacted on Twitter: @JoeCarlsonNJH or by phone: 973-383-1292.

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