Joliet Junior College expanding degrees in electric vehicles

College will use state grant money for initiative

Michael Sullivan works on a vehicle’s brakes during Auto Service IV class at Joliet Junior College on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024.

Joliet — Joliet Junior College’s automotive technology department will be receiving some green upgrades in the coming years, thanks to a grant from the Illinois Community College Board’s Rev Up EV! grant initiative.

JJC announced Jan. 22 that it had received a grant worth $216,199 through the initiative, which it will use to create an associate degree program in electric vehicle repair as well as additional certification courses for electric and hybrid vehicle and EV charging station maintenance.

Internal Program Coordinator Andy Kacena (right) goes over Angel Loza’s work during Auto Service IV class at Joliet Junior College on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024.

“We added a class on hybrid and electric vehicles as an elective in the department about seven years ago and it is always full,” said Curt Ward, professor of automotive service technology who applied for the grant. “The industry has grown dramatically since then, and in the last two years, so we wanted the opportunity to grow the program with an associates’ and some stackable certificates.”

In addition to creating the new course curriculum, the school plans to use the grant funding to purchase new equipment including a Tesla and a second fully electric vehicle for students to practice on, as well as additional components for tear-down practice, tools, and several EV chargers for the automotive department.

“This is a huge employment opportunity. The interesting thing is a lot of the basic skills needed to work on things like that are already taught in electrical and mechanical maintenance classes.”

—  Curt Ward, professor of automotive service technology at JJC

“Currently the only charger we have on campus is for public use, which is not conducive for teaching,” Ward said. “There are plans for charging stations being put in all over, so there will be a lot of need for maintenance on them.”

Ward noted that already, on any given day, 15 to 20 percent of the EV charging stations in the U.S. are down due to need for maintenance and a lack of individuals to service them.

“This is a huge employment opportunity,” he said. “The interesting thing is a lot of the basic skills needed to work on things like that are already taught in electrical and mechanical maintenance classes. A lot of people think that with green technology they need lots of special training, but a lot of the standard electrical skills translate easily. The vehicle side is where there is much more nuance.”

On the vehicle side, the automotive department already has a Nissan Leaf as an electric vehicle as well as three hybrids: a Toyota Prius, a Ford Escape and a Honda Civic.

A Nissan Leaf electric vehicle sits on a lift before getting serviced at the Joliet Junior College automotive department on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024.

The new vehicles the department plans to purchase will be selected to provide students with more hands-on experience working on popular models in addition to the practice they get manning the school’s on-site automotive repair shop.

“The key difference between EVs and traditional combustion engine cars is, you need a higher level of knowledge of electric systems to work on the electric vehicles,” Ward said. “In some respects, they are simpler to work on. There are fewer components and they’re simpler in design, but the diagnostics are at higher level than a combustion engine, and you need more knowledge of AC and DC electricity and advanced driver assistance systems, like radar and motion sensing equipment to work on them.”

Getting the program in place

JJC Dean of Career and Technical Education Joshua West noted that the program will not be launching immediately, but that some of the courses could be offered next school year.

“It could be a bit of a process to get the degree of the ground, though our certificate program gives us a head start,” West said. “But there is an internal process and an external process to getting the curriculum approved by the school and the state.”

The associate degree program should be able to be offered starting in fall 2025, although students taking basic automotive courses within the department this fall could transition into the new degree when it launches, West said.

Thomas Cipiti (left) and Adrian Martinez finish up working on an engine during Auto Service IV class at Joliet Junior College on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024.

“This was a logical choice for us to pursue this grant, and we’re one of several schools receiving funding like this,” he said. “It’s part of a larger initiative to infuse educational institutions with money for green jobs. Our automotive department has been recognized nationally for years, so it was a slam dunk for us to stay ahead on technology so we can stay at the forefront of the movement.”

As Ward and the staff work to create the new curriculum, JJC will be offering other short-term training sessions and non-credit classes in areas related to EV repair and maintenance.

These courses are primarily offered to professionals already in the automotive industry who are looking to expand their skills, and provide assistance to the school as a curriculum is developed.

Ward will be instrumental in developing the curriculum for JJC, as he has published a textbook on the subject of EV and hybrid vehicle maintenance and is a respected voice in the field nationally.

He is part of a group of professionals working to create nationwide standards for college curriculums on EV maintenance and will travel to Washington, D.C. to speak at a meeting on the subject organized by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE), which sets the standards and certifies automotive educational programs around the U.S.

“We are really excited about offering this program,” West said. “The skills from our current course offerings are already very transferrable. We’ve had students go on to work on wind turbines, subway trains, and electric forklifts in factories, filling in gaps in industries where official programs might not be in place. We are grateful for the support from the Illinois Community College Board and look forward to leveraging these grant funds to provide cutting-edge education and training opportunities for our students.”

The Rev Up EV! Community College Initiative is a statewide effort to equip community colleges with the resources needed to address the growing demand for skilled professionals in the electric vehicle sector. JJC is one of the 25 Illinois community colleges selected to receive grants through this initiative.