Giant rooms are filled with sofa-sized diesel engines, massive trucks and myriad car parts, yet the floors look clean enough to spread out a picnic blanket.
Work tools are arranged just so. Engine hoses are aligned with painstaking perfection.
It could be a top-flight NASCAR racing team's shop or a major automaker's prized engineering and design studio. Instead, it's the Sacramento campus of Universal Technical Institute, just west of Interstate 5, facing Sleep Train Arena to the east.
UTI-Sacramento is one of 11 U.S. technical education campuses overseen by Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Universal Technical Institute Inc. Publicly traded UTI has struggled with some of the same problems as other for-profit colleges, such as rising student loan default rates and falling enrollment.
But the number of students taking classes on Sacramento's UTI campus has grown steadily since it opened in 2005, say administrators, who point to California as home to the most cars and auto shops in the nation.
UTI-Sacramento now stands as the area's No. 1 auto tech school in terms of annual enrollment and graduates, and its alums can be found throughout the area. The local UTI campus also could soon see an enrollment boost from the pending October closure of the 900-student West Sacramento campus of WyoTech, another for-profit school and a direct competitor.
Rob Pane, parts and service director at Niello Porsche, serves on UTI-Sacramento's advisory council and noted that several UTI alums – including a shop foreman – work at his Rocklin dealership.
"We like the quality of the student that comes out (of UTI), because they're trained in real-world situations, particularly the diagnostic side. That's great for an entry-level tech, because it gets them working instead of us spending time teaching them everything under the moon.
"We believe in the school. We hire their students. We like their teachers."
Sacramento-area dealership groups with UTI-trained techs also include Future Automotive Group and the Maita Automotive Group.
UTI-Sacramento hosts graduation ceremonies for 60 to 80 students every three weeks. Fortunately for most, auto techs are still in demand.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has forecast an increase of 31,200 new jobs annually in the U.S. collision, automotive, motorcycle and marine industries through 2018, with nearly 1.3 million employed by that time.
Adrian Cordova, vice president of UTI operations for the west region and interim UTI-Sacramento campus president, said there continues to be a healthy demand from auto dealerships, some of whom emphasized service to make up for lost new car sales during the recession.
Graduates of UTI-Sacramento's 18 programs will be more than mechanics and body shop techs. They could end up working for large-scale mining operations, heavy machinery companies and trucking firms. Others might someday apply their skills on oil rigs.
Each of UTI's U.S. campuses has its own specialized core curriculum. At UTI-Sacramento, core programs are automotive, diesel and industrial, and collision repair and refinish.
Education programs run from about 45 to nearly 100 weeks, with tuition for a 52-week course running about $28,000. Some specialized courses – say drive trains or transmissions – are intense, concentrated into three weeks.
"That's why attendance is the most important thing. You have to show up," said Don Black, education director at UTI-Sacramento,
Inside, UTI-Sacramento resembles other institutions of higher learning. Classroom instructors lecture in front of rows of students sitting at computers.
In the enormous, high-ceiling shop areas, however, the ambience is decidedly motor-driven.
In one lab, students climb over cars and trucks, hooking up computers and diagnosing problems. They need to be thorough because, as Black explained: "We bug the crud out of these cars."
Along the way, students learn about thousands of parts, their cost, the amount of time taken for a given task – information that comes in handy when sharpening another key skill: making real-world estimates.
In another large room packed with huge diesel engines, it's a whole different vibe. Students diagnose built-in problems amid the thunderous roar of machinery.
Many students are from California, but hometowns are all over the map. Alaska is represented at UTI-Sacramento.
Graduates are looking to step into jobs with starting salaries ranging from $27,000 to $40,000. Students interviewed during a recent tour said the hands-on education gets them ready to work.
"You look at the resources we have here – the equipment, the computers – it's just a great place to learn," said Damian O'Grady, a 26-year-old student tutor from Yuba City.
For Jeff Newcomb, a 20-year-old Roseville student aspiring to work on Porsches, a UTI education "makes something like that within reach. There's more (training) involved, but it's something worth going for."
UTI does not break down job-placement and program-completion rates for individual campuses, but it said 82 percent of all graduates find a job in the auto tech industry within one year, and 65 percent of its students complete at least one of the programs.
UTI's Black said the local campus has not been affected by a wave of federal scrutiny over for-profit schools' recruiting practices, low graduation rates and high student loan defaults.
A U.S. Senate investigation into for-profit colleges reported in 2010 that of all students who enrolled at UTI campuses in 2008-09, about 35 percent withdrew. However, the report said that was "a much lower rate than most other companies reviewed."
A Sacramento Bee report in 2010, based on federal figures of students defaulting on loans within two years of payments being due, found UTI-Sacramento to be the area's best-performing for-profit campus, with a 6 percent default rate. Among more than 20 public, nonprofit and for-profit schools in the area, only Folsom Lake College, Sacramento State and UC Davis had lower default rates.
UTI recently reported revenue of $98.4 million for its first fiscal quarter ended Dec. 31, down from $106.4 million in the year-ago period. Net income for the most recent quarter was $3.6 million, or 14 cents a share, compared with $4.5 million, or 18 cents a share, the year before.
In the most recent quarter, UTI said its system-wide average full-time student enrollment was 16,500, down from 18,300 the prior year.
UTI CEO Kim McWaters noted: "For the past several quarters, we, like the rest of the industry, have faced real challenges in attracting new students, and in having them start school. While we expect those trends to continue through much of 2013, our fundamental business is strong."
UNIVERSAL TECHNICAL INSTITUTE AT A GLANCE
Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Universal Technical Institute Inc. oversees a national network of 11 campuses, providing technical education training for students seeking careers as professional automotive, diesel, collision repair, motorcycle and marine technicians. Here's a look at UTI's Sacramento campus: Headquarters: Opened in October 2005, the local campus at 4100 Duckhorn Drive comprises about 250,000 square feet.
Employees: About 140.
Students: Current enrollment locally is about 60 percent of the 2,200-student capacity.
Core curriculum: Automotive, diesel and industrial, collision repair and refinishing. Overall, 18 programs of study are offered, ranging from about 45 weeks to nearly 100 weeks.
Electives: Ford Accelerated Credential Training, a 15-week, intensive training program using Ford Motor Co. curriculum, vehicles, components and diagnostic equipment; plus specialized Toyota and Nissan courses and a smog-check program.
Costs: Tuition for a 52-week course of training runs about $28,000. UTI-Sacramento said almost all students are supported by federal funds, grants, loans, scholarships and other efforts.
Local connections: UTI graduates work locally at businesses that include Maita Toyota-Nissan, Future Ford, the Niello Co., Freeman Collision Center, Crown Life Trucks, Ryder, JM Equipment Inc., Cooks Collision, Union Pacific, Peterson Caterpillar, Holt of California and Raymond Handling Concepts.
Support: Automakers, local dealer groups and other firms provide vehicles, equipment and financial support for UTI-Sacramento. NAPA Auto Parts and Snap-on Tools have in-house stores on the local campus.
Competitors: WyoTech, whose 900-student campus in West Sacramento is scheduled to close in October. Auto techs also are being turned out through local programs at American River College, Cosumnes River College and Sierra College.
Fast fact: Universal Technical Institute Inc. shares are traded on the New York Stock Exchange; the ticker symbol is UTI.
More info: www.uti.edu or call (800) 508-1153.
Call The Bee's Mark Glover, (916) 321-1184.