Hidden in remote Blairsville, Pennsylvania, Jeff Gruenewald has lived eight months in a small, one-room apartment 650 miles from his friends and family. Like hundreds of his classmates, who have also taken temporary housing, each morning the St. Louis native dresses in his requisite red and blue uniform to attend classes 30 miles from the nearest Interstate.
There's little nightlife for the 21-year-old, and he has three months before returning home. But in St. Louis, Gruenewald couldn't find the experience he has at WyoTech's Blairsville campus – hands-on training building high performance custom street rods. They're the kind most people see only on television or at car shows.
More than 1,000 vocational students routinely travel from around the country to this tiny town for an education they could not find at their local commuter colleges. But don't plan to register at the Blairsville campus soon; there's a waiting list of more than eight months.
With six campuses now in California, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Wyoming, students follow military protocol as they study everything from the design phase and frame fabrication to interiors and finish paint. The facilities are state of the art, each equipped with lecture halls and about $7 million in tools, including more than 100 welders, plasma cutting and fume exhaust systems from The Lincoln Electric Company.
The school's faculty maintains strict standards both in the classroom and in the shop. A high school education is a must and unexcused absences are grounds for failure. Facial hair and piercings are strictly prohibited. Every student wears a uniform – even a retired CEO who signed on to rebuild the cars of his youth.
Students can study other trades as well, including aviation maintenance, diesel technology, HVAC and plumbing. But while the drag racers and exotic show cars that pepper the shop floor lure many students, others know that the school's high standards and thorough education attracts some of the most respected employers in the automotive industry. These companies routinely visit WyoTech to recruit its outstanding graduates for employment.
Testing the Welder
Many of the skills taught at WyoTech include a base concentration in welding. But before any student lays down a bead on a classic car, each must first prove proficient in the fundamentals of the trade. Students learn stick, TIG, MIG, and flux-cored welding on welding machines from Lincoln Electric.
They are tested on butt welds, fillet welds, corner welds, hole fills, tubing fits, plug welds, seam welds and out-of-position welds. They weld steel, chrome-moly and aluminum of various gauges and shapes. Dumpsters out back overflow with test pieces waiting to be recycled. Students are tested then retested again before instructors issue final grades on each of the core competencies.
The Lincoln Electric machines run constantly throughout the year. Students are required to disassemble the welders, demonstrate an understanding of function of each major component, and then reassemble the machines again. It's all part of a comprehensive training program that goes beyond the basics.
The Lincoln welders have become a WyoTech mainstay, according to Blairsville campus President Steve Whitson. The performance, reliability and versatility of the machines live up to the school's high standards, and students find the welders easy to use, he said.
"We have pretty intensive courses here," Whitson said. "So quite frankly, we can't afford for our machines to be down for any period of time. The Lincoln equipment has been very reliable and easy to maintain. But if something does go wrong, the service is outstanding."
Students say they learn quickly on the Lincoln machines – one welder in particular, the Lincoln Precision™ TIG 185, is a favorite to some on the street rods for its versatility and ease of use, said street rod instructor, Brian Pierce.
"The TIG 185 is very user-friendly for students," he said. "It has a wider heat setting range than other machines, and we're at the level of craftsmanship here where arc performance is everything. So we rely on this equipment for the best possible results."
Matt O'Connell, a WyoTech student in Blairsville, took a yearlong leave from his job at a Dodge dealership in Dover, Delaware, to advance his career in collision and refinishing work. Learning to TIG weld was easier than he thought it would be, he said.
"To be honest, it's kind of hard to mess up with this machine," he said. "It's very forgiving and as long as you keep it clean, it just keeps going great."
Students on the fast track
A number of WyoTech students were recently featured on The Learning Channel's® series, Overhaulin'®. In the episode, celebrity custom car designer Chip Foose led a team of technicians to transform an unsuspecting owner's ‘56 Chevy into a custom car in just a week.
Other students have found work at such notable shops as Fat Man Fabrications in South Carolina, Detroit Speed and Engineering in North Carolina, Posie's Rod and Customs and Predator Performance, both in Pennsylvania. More than 90 percent of WyoTech students are placed in jobs immediately after graduation. And to help maintain that high placement level, the school requires each student work with a professional resume writer to update their credentials.
In the industry, WyoTech grads are considered the best of the best. Leading employers, including Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Ford and General Motors travel to WyoTech campuses to recruit students right off the shop floor.
Many students, having already landed existing jobs, enroll for eight months or more to improve their skills. Gruenewald took a year off his job at Westport Customs in St. Louis, where he worked on antique and muscle cars. He said the new skills he'll take home will be invaluable to his career.
"You really can't learn this stuff anywhere else," he said. "I'll definitely have an advantage over the other guys in the shop back home."
Blairsville Street Rod Coordinator Harry Weimann said that the Pennsylvania campus continues to grow. New students are registering for classes everyday – some two years in advance.
"It's really pretty remarkable," he said. "We never imagined this would take off like it has, but it just keeps going."