First class graduates from specialized program filling need for light rail technicians

A group of graduates is ready to take their skills to the front lines of the growing light rail train network in the Twin Cities metro. 

"We're all very proud," said Gary Courtney of Metro Transit at Thursday's graduation. "We're all very excited to have you join the Metro Transit Team. And your family should be as well."

Six students graduated from a brand new, first-of-its-kind program to fill a growing need of technicians for the light rail lines. The two-plus year program was a joint effort between Hennepin County Technical College, a local non-profit and Metro Transit.

Together the organizations found, educated and trained a motivated group of students from under-represented communities in search of a brighter future in the trades. Those students each walked away Thursday with an Associate's Degree.

"Who would have thought three years ago that this partnership would ignite something like this?" said Hennepin Technical College President Dr. Merrill Irving Jr.

Born in Thailand, recent graduate Thao Xiong came to the United States in 1993. His next stop will likely be a full-time gig as an electro-mechanical technician. The position will pay $27 an hour.

"I'm very excited," said Xiong. "It's been a very long journey, very long hours - at least up to 14 hours per day. Just chugging along."

Metro Transit has said with its upcoming Southwest Light Rail expansion it needs to hire more than two dozen technicians. With a tight job market that can be challenging. That's one reason Metro Transit covered the first year of tuition and then provided paid, on-the-job apprentice type work experience while the students studied in the classroom.