New Center of Excellence Provides Needed Automotive Industry Training


By Lori Leath Smith

The doors have opened at a new Training Center for students pursuing careers in the automotive industry. The Center of Excellence, a state-of-the-art facility, is a milestone achievement made possible through the unique and valuable partnership of Step One Automotive Group and Northwest Florida State College (NWFSC).

NWFSC Center of Excellence Automotive TrainingLocated in Fort Walton Beach’s Commerce and Technology Park, the Center of Excellence not only offers the best in innovative automotive training and services, but is also a hub for automotive education. From a dedicated used car reconditioning center, excelling in oil changes and brake work, the 39,722 sq. ft. center is fully equipped to cater to the diverse needs of the automotive world, including a heavy-duty commercial truck bay, advanced window tinting facilities and a specialized spray-in bed liner bay.

The comprehensive Center includes a fully renovated 30,000-sq.-ft main building, equipped with 17 lifts capable of servicing vehicles up to class 2,500, a 7,000-sq.-ft. detail shop and a 2,200-sq.-ft. paint and dent repair center, built from the ground up. It’s also equipped with the latest eco-friendly technology for fluid and tire disposal and features the most advanced equipment and safety standards available.

NWFSC Center of Excellence Automotive TrainingIn addition to automotive services, at the heart of the initiative is the launch of the Automotive Technology Apprenticeship Program, a groundbreaking collaboration between Step One and NWFSC. This unique program offers students invaluable on-the-job training (OJT)—a real shop environment with master certified technicians which aligns education and industry practices seamlessly. Enrolled students stand to benefit from a comprehensive 720 clock, hour-free tuition, complimentary books and essential tools of the trade. On successful completion of the apprenticeship, graduates will be awarded a certified portable credential, gaining recognition and acceptance from industries and employers nationwide.

At the recent grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new center, Maureen Bierman, Step One Automotive Group Marketing Director said the idea emerged a year ago when Dr. Devin Stephenson, the president of Northwest Florida State College, reached out to her. “I have an idea and Step One Automotive Group is the only organization that can help us make that a reality,” he said.

“When we met, he shared with me his desire to stand up an automotive technology training program at the college and was looking for a partner where the students could do hands-on apprentice training in a real shop with master certified technicians,” said Maureen.

A year later, after extensive renovations to an old factory and with the help of a $2.8 million grant from the governor’s job growth fund, the Center of Excellence is in operation. “When Dr. Stephenson approached us over a year ago, we knew we had the opportunity to turn his vision into reality,” said Maureen. “Today, we stand together, proud to be a part of a program that will shape the next generation of automotive professionals.”

“By partnering with industry leaders and introducing the Automotive Technology Apprenticeship Program, we provide students with a unique opportunity to gain practical skills and knowledge while working alongside experienced professionals,” remarked Dr. Stephenson. “At NWFSC, our goal is to produce graduates who are job-ready and equipped to drive innovation and shape the future of the automotive industry.”

“We are deeply committed to empowering the next generation of automotive professionals. The opening of the Step One Automotive Group Center of Excellence is not just a milestone for us, but a testament to our vision of shaping a future where passion meets technology,” said Juan Carlos Correa, Chairman of the Board, Step One Automotive Group. “Together with NWFSC, we are ensuring that students have unparalleled access to hands-on experience and the best of automotive education. It’s about driving dreams into reality and propelling the industry forward.”

Excited about what the program offers to Okaloosa County was Okaloosa County Commissioner Trey Goodwin. “Okaloosa County has an excellent work ethic; just what we want to foster in the automotive industry without accruing extra debt. Skilled technical training is a big deal and there are a lot of holes, currently. We’re excited to see we have leadership to fill those holes and help more households in Okaloosa County—those eager to pursue their careers,” he said. “It’s a perfect example of how a local business and a local institution can come together to achieve these goals.”

To find out more about the NWFSC Automotive Technology Apprenticeship Program, visit or call 850-533-1521.