FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (Dec. 23, 2015) -- Twenty-nine Fort Campbell Soldiers received technical certificates, Friday, after completing the first mechatronics class on post.

The Soldiers graduated from the Mechatronics Level I course offered at the Staff Sgt. Glenn H. English Jr. Army Education Center by Nashville State Community College. The course, which began in August, allowed Soldiers transitioning to the civilian sector to use their GI Bill to participate in this technical training program. Mechatronics combines electronics, mechanics and computerized technologies into one field, with opportunities in manufacturing industries and beyond.

Mechatronics jobs can often fetch up to $30 an hour, and more advanced training in the field is available. Fort Campbell plans to offer Level II certification next fall for interested students who wish to continue their education. The inaugural mechatronics program was made possible in part by grant funding from Tennessee's Labor Education Alignment Program.

Fort Campbell Garrison Commander Col. James "Rob" Salome commended the Soldiers for their initiative to participate in a growing field. This training, coupled with the graduates' Army experience, make for a winning combination in the civilian workforce, he said. "You bring a lot to the table," Salome said. "It's a lot more than the technical skills you've learned for the past few months. … I would rival anybody to try and match you pound-for-pound for the amount of experience you have when it comes to leadership [gleaned from the Army]."

Mechatronics graduates can become entry-level technicians, integration engineers and quality program engineers at places such as Hankook Tire and Akebono Brake Corp. Reginald Gardner, Nashville State's dean of computer and engineering technologies, called the first 16-week class a "success story" with a 96 percent graduation rate. Nashville State received some $992,000 in LEAP grant funding to provide for the specialized mechatronics equipment needed for instruction at Fort Campbell and a local high school.

"We're excited about this new program and its accelerated format, because it allows us to develop professionals in the mechatronics field and to also provide qualified and talented resources to local companies who have demonstrated a workforce shortage," he said.

Programs such as this one were designed with the hope of creating a skilled workforce in the region. Mike Krause works in Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam's office as the executive director of Tennessee Promise and Drive to 55. He served at Fort Campbell during his eight-year stint with the Army and Tennessee Army National Guard. As a former Soldier who navigated the transition to civilian life successfully, Krause spoke about the importance of a college education as a "passport" to success.

"You guys are about to enter a world that few people can ever imagine," Krause said. "Because you have now the perfect combination of technical skill, which is what this credential has provided you, with [the] poise and leadership that the Army has provided you."

Krause said college is no longer defined as four-year bachelor's degree. Technical skills and a prepared workforce are essential to drawing industries to the Middle Tennessee region, Krause added, as evidenced by negotiations with Hankook Tire.

"In the old days, we would have talked to them about land deals and tax incentives," he said. "They don't want to talk about that anymore. They wanted to talk about a prepared workforce. How many people in Clarksville, Montgomery County, can go to work in this industry tomorrow?"

Sergeant Rusty Smith will medically retire after seven years in the Army, Monday. The wheeled vehicle mechanic said multiple companies already expressed interest in hiring him. The Soldier is waiting to accept the right offer, as he plans to stay local and hopes to obtain his Level II mechatronics certification. Smith spoke on behalf of the other graduates during Friday's commencement.

"…. Mechatronics is a combination of many disciplines, to include electrical engineering and maintenance, mechanical engineering and maintenance, hydraulic and pneumatic maintenance and computer control and maintenance," Smith said. "Most of us in this course are some sort of military support, whether that be wheel mechanics, track mechanics, rotary wing mechanics, weapons maintenance [or] radar repair. This course takes our years of experience and hard work and gives us a solid foundation to continue our mission in ensuring that the industries can continue to supply the world in [its] needs."

Thirty-four Soldiers are registered for the spring semester, with morning, afternoon and night class options. A few remaining slots are available to transitioning Soldiers, said Army Continuing Education System Career Skills Program Coordinator Teresa K. English. The next class begins Jan. 19. Nashville State will offer a 10-week summer program at Fort Campbell's Education Center as well. For more information about the mechatronics program, call 270-412-0736.

"We are very excited that we're growing and increasing the opportunities for Soldiers as they transition out of the Army," English said.