New Rivian paint team members training in a spot repair booth at the company's Normal, Illinois, manufacturing plant. Credit: Rivian / Courtesy

Automaker partners with Illinois college to boost EV training

As electric vehicle manufacturer Rivian expands its presence in Normal, Illinois, it has launched a partnership with a local community college that will work to fulfill the company’s ongoing need for entry-level workers with specialized skills training.

Heartland Community College launched its Electric Vehicle Technology Associate in Applied Science degree program in 2021. The program awards certificates along with a two-year associate degree.

The college received a $7.5 million grant from the state of Illinois to build a new facility for electric vehicle and battery technology, which is under construction and scheduled to open its doors in fall 2023, according to college President Keith Cornille.

Mutual benefits

Rivian has a significant presence in the college and its programs. The company brings training groups to the college’s temporary facilities, which are set up specifically for instruction in electric vehicle maintenance. Rivian also utilizes paid conference space on the main college campus in Normal for training and has rented space for employee onboarding from the earliest days of hiring at the plant. 

It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. Rivian has provided vehicles for students to work on and lends out one of its employees as an instructor for the program. Likewise, students sometimes go to the Rivian plant to observe the production process, said Steve Fast, a spokesperson for Heartland Community College.

Rivian has also had a hand in shaping the educational curriculum, even though the program was not geared exclusively toward Rivian, Cornille said.

“I think the college was in touch with where things were going. But once Rivian came into the community and had really articulated this need, it just accelerated things for us here at the college,” Cornille said.

“Rivian was alongside us as we developed that curriculum,” Cornille continued. “So, that’s how it was discovered that you need to have something on brakes and suspensions because of the way that the electric vehicle works. It works a bit differently [from a] combustible engine. So, all of those types of things were taken into consideration as we built the program,” 

What’s next

The college has completed the approval process for each of its programs but is awaiting final accreditation for the associate degree. About 30 students are currently enrolled. Due to COVID-19 concerns, the program limits each entering cohort to 16. Each cohort includes individuals from a wide age range and with varying levels of experience, Cornille said. 

“We have a variety of different individuals in there. Some young, some older. We have a couple of individuals that are retired from various professions. One of them from State Farm, for example; another one from the nuclear power plant in the area, coming back to try to get another skill to reenter the workforce.

Cornille acknowledged that diversity is lacking in at least one significant way.

“The diversity is generally what we see in our student body here. … What we don’t have right now in the program — we have very few women,” Cornille said. 

Heartland is in communication with other community colleges in the region to develop an exchange program. There is also discussion with Illinois State University around possible transfer arrangements for students pursuing four-year degrees, Cornille said. 

“We have two different tracks. We have that primary cohort [that is pursuing] an Associate of Applied Science. So, they get their degree and then generally they would go [directly] into the workforce. But we are in conversations with Illinois State as they’re developing their program, to see how our various programs, whether it’s the Associate of Applied Science or our Associate of Science program, would blend into their engineering program,” Cornille said.