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First fruit ripens from Heartland Community College partnership with Rivian

Charlie Schlenker
The first graduates of a partnership between Rivian and Heartland Community College have newly-acquired skills in electric vehicle maintenance.

The first cohort of people representing a partnership between Rivian and Heartland Community College has graduated with new skills in electric vehicle maintenance. Eight graduates might not seem like a lot, but Heartland provost Rick Pearce said more will assuredly come.

Pearce said the eight came to Rivian already with some automotive industry skills and the college "upskilled" them, as the term goes, so they can work on electric vehicles. The program is not Rivian specific, though, and Pearce said other community members and people beyond the Twin City area can get engaged in EV repair.

“We have talked with other colleges that have automotive programs about pipelining. Some of their graduates who want to go into EV to come to us to get that capstone experience in our vehicle,” said Pearce.

Illinois EV buyers can get a $4,000 rebate, and the state just named an EV coordinator. Pearce said those things are significant commitments that matter to Heartland and Rivian.

“Historically, they (EVs) were expensive, but the push by the government to try and drive that price down, I think, is going to be golden because a lot of people; that's their hesitancy. That and also the availability of charging stations. And we know that the federal government is expanding those charging stations across the country. I think those things are going to be barriers that are going to be dropped,” said Pearce.

There is, in fact, $146 million in federal money for Illinois to create charging stations. All this signals job security for people like Zachary Swords, one of those first eight graduates of the EV part of Heartland's technical trades program.

“Industry, automotive especially, is heading toward a more sustainable and environmentally-friendly way, and I believe that electric vehicles and anything battery powered is definitely going to be the future,” said Swords.

Swords lives in Morton. He used to fabricate metal parts for Caterpillar and Kubota. Now, he's a Rivian field service technician, assembling and disassembling battery packs and doing light repair of EVs.

“It's nice being able to see all the parts I used to make go into the toys that I'm building now,” said Swords, adding he found what he learned at Heartland to be a dazzling experience.

“The software that goes into the vehicles is a lot more in depth than I could have ever imagined. Just all the coding and programming that come into the vehicles, all the different ride heights that we can do, the different modes. We have sand mode. We have off-road modes. We have sports. Just the technology of vehicles all around,” said Swords.

Heartland leaders see people like Swords as part of a bright future.

Curt Rendall is executive director of program development and innovation at Heartland. He said the college continues to position itself to fill unmet workforce needs in the region for EVs and beyond. He said there's an estimated need for 1,000 people per year within a 60-mile drive of Bloomington Normal, who have industrial production skills; things like tool-and- die machining, welding, electronics, troubleshooting, and robotics.

Rendall said future needs that have not quite arrived will involve additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, noting the population within that 60-mile radius will support a lot of industry — if they can educate the workers.

“You know, as more companies locate (here), this is going to be kind of a research triangle (in) the Midwest, or what we like to call the ‘electric heartland.’ A lot of people are going to flock to this area for a reasonable cost of living and great quality of life,” said Rendall.

He said central Illinois has an advantage over other areas of the country because the arrival of Rivian prompted leaders to push harder.

“I'd say we're well ahead of the curve," said Rendall. "We regularly field calls from throughout the country and colleges and other institutions that want to find out how we did what we did and how to do what we're doing. There are at least nine colleges that have come together under the National Electric Vehicle consortium through Indian River College in Florida. So, there's just a couple of large handfuls (doing this work) at the moment.”

The first eight graduates of Heartland’s partnership with Rivian will go back to the factory in Normal, or to service centers around the country. And as Heartland Community College takes in more people who may end up in non-Rivian auto repair shops, newly-minted tech Zachary Swords said people should come to know that electric vehicles can be a delight, not only for the people who work on them, but for those who drive them, too.

“Just the speed at which an electric vehicle can travel. I think we've all ridden in a fast muscle car at least once in our lives, and it's just a whole different beast being inside electric vehicle,” said Swords.

And for others who are waiting to experience that driving thrill, Congress is talking about offering a $7,500 rebate to buy an electric vehicle on top of state incentives.

Heartland Community College offers an electric vehicle technology associate in applied science degree, and certification programs for electric vehicle maintenance and light repair, electric vehicle energy storage, electric vehicle technology, and electric vehicle service advisor.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.