Three years ago, Chee Vang was working in a tire repair shop, “stressing out” because he wasn’t sure if he could pay all his bills.

Then Vang’s older sister saw an ad for a unique college degree in light-rail technology from Hennepin Technical College (HTC).

“I applied for it and here I am today,” said Vang, 26, now an electromechanical technician for Metro Transit.

With the $2 billion Southwest line between downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie slated to begin service in 2023, Metro Transit needs more than two dozen additional mechanics to work on its burgeoning fleet of light-rail trains.

But facing an economy with historically low unemployment and an aging workforce diminished by retirements, the transit agency “needed to take a pro-active approach,” said Gary Courtney, supervisor of Workforce Development at the Metropolitan Council. “If we can’t find electromechanical technicians in the current environment, we should make them.”

Metro Transit and the college partnered with Twin Cities Rise, a Minneapolis nonprofit that focuses on career development. Together, they created a three-year program for LRT technicians that is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation. The program is also designed to recruit students of color.

“There’s a definite skilled worker shortage, and everyone is looking for a model that works,” said Richard Kelly, customized training representative with Hennepin Tech.

While 351 applicants initially expressed interest in the program, only six graduated from Hennepin Tech earlier this month with a degree. The curriculum, which blended classroom learning with on-the-job training, was rigorous.

Light-rail trains, which cost $4 million, are sophisticated and expensive equipment. The students learned about motors, transformers, electronics, and took courses such as physics, calculus and welding. Twin Cities Rise provided employment readiness training and was critical in recruiting candidates from underrepresented communities.

Graduates are now eligible to apply for jobs at Metro Transit, starting at about $27 an hour — along with health insurance and pension benefits negotiated through the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005, another program partner.

“There are plenty of good jobs out there where you don’t need a four-year degree,” said Ryan Timlin, president of Local 1005.

Students shadowed union members at Metro Transit and were paid while doing so.

“At the beginning, it was a little hard because I didn’t know anything about trains,” Vang said. “It was intimidating, you’re scared you might break something or touch something and get electrocuted. The mechanics know a lot about trains, so I felt safe shadowing them.”

The state provided $387,000 to get the program up and running, and Metro Transit chipped in $120,000 for one year of tuition, books and supplies. There were additional costs for staff and administrative salaries, and other in-kind contributions, such as incentive pay for employees who mentored the interns.

Since enrolling in the program, Vang moved from St. Paul’s Frogtown to Woodbury and said he can now “afford my own things and my own car. It got me ready to live on my own.” He’s engaged to be married and hopes to have a long career at Metro Transit.

And, he noted, “It feels great because there’s no more homework.”