Since he was a young boy working on cars with his dad, Abilene High School senior Aimr Lee has wanted to work in the automotive industry. He’s gotten a head start on his career as a quick line worker at Arrow Ford doing oil changes and light auto repair.

And as a student in teacher Will Kirby’s Auto Tech 2 class at The LIFT, Lee and his classmates are learning what it takes to have that career in the automotive industry with daily hands-on experience in the facility’s expansive auto shop. But one of the things the facility has been missing since it opened in August 2021 is a forklift to help move heavy equipment, storing that equipment, and putting things in place inside the shop.

Enter the Development Corporation of Abilene. Members of the DCOA saw the need for a forklift at The LIFT and knew that this would be necessary training equipment for the NextU Program, which is sponsored by the DCOA and assists in training students within strategic pathways. Earlier this month, the much-needed forklift was delivered to The LIFT, and after Kirby and automotive instructor Matt Parker were certified on the machine, they are now eligible to begin instructing the 18-year-old students in their classes on how to use the equipment.

Those students will leave high school with an additional certification on a forklift, which will only enhance their resumes when they begin searching for jobs post-graduation.

“These students are the future of Abilene and together we are ensuring a prosperous community for years to come,” said Misty Mayo, the Present and Chief Executive Officer of the DCOA. “The DCOA is committed to providing equipment that contributes to the future success of those students who are striving to live and work in Abilene. We are very much committed to building the future of Abilene. Workforce development is a key path to creating Abilene’s future.”

Sponsored by the DCOA, the NextU Program grows Abilene’s talent pipeline. AISD partners with DCOA to offer the NextU Program to high school students, enabling them to take dual-credit courses, earn industry certifications, and gain experience in career and technical fields as they prepare to enter Abilene’s workforce.

And that’s something that Lee – already a member of Abilene’s workforce – knows will be important.

“Everyone in the Auto Tech 2 class wants a career in the automotive industry,” he said. “At Arrow Ford, we use a forklift all the time. If we didn’t have one, we wouldn’t be able to do our work because it’s used to pick up heavy parts you can’t carry by hand. To be able to leave high school already certified in how to operate a forklift is a huge advantage for us. If you’re applying for a job and the employer sees that you’re certified to drive a forklift, it’s almost a guarantee that you’ll be hired.”

For Kirby, that certification is the key part of this entire venture.

“Having the community involved in what we’re doing out here at The LIFT will, I hope, keep some of these kids in Abilene and give the community a new workforce,” he said. “The people doing those jobs now will need to be replaced at some point, and those employers will need someone to fill their shoes and do the job correctly. Leaving here with certification on a forklift will only help our students, so we’re extremely grateful to the DCOA for partnering with us on this program.”

Those students who will begin working toward that certification will learn the basics first, which, Kirby said, is all about safety. Learning to be aware of their surroundings is the most important thing, and they’ll learn that in a strict safety course that will be taught before they begin driving the forklift.

The automotive classes will be the primary users of the forklift, but all the programs at The LIFT will benefit from having a forklift on site. As The LIFT Director Jay Ashby explained, most of the storage at The LIFT is on a mezzanine level, and the use of a forklift will make storing equipment much easier.

“We’ve been carrying equipment up steps or using the shop yard to store heavy equipment,” he said. “As we stockpile supplies over the years, we will need to use those mezzanines more and more, and having a forklift available will make it to where it’s not as much of a task to get things up and down.”

And while right now the focus is on the automotive classes, Kirby stressed the certification for the forklift goes far beyond using it to work in a shop.

“This certification will give our students a leg up, not only in the automotive industry but in any business or industry that uses a forklift,” he said. “Once they get that certification, they can more easily get a job at Sam’s Club or Amazon or anywhere that uses a forklift.”

This is the kind of partnership that was envisioned when The LIFT was in the drawing stages: one that benefits both AISD students and the Abilene community.

“We are incredibly appreciative of the DCOA for supporting our programs in so many ways,” Ashby said. “The forklift they provided as part of the NextU Program will be a major help in the day-to-day operations of our programs, but, more importantly, it will be another skill our kids can learn that will make them a more attractive candidate for hire.”