Two years ago, Jennifer Erny of North Platte was barely getting by. With two small children to feed and the stack of bills growing higher each month, she realized it was time to do something to change her situation.
And that is exactly what she did.
On May 11, Erny will receive an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Automotive Technology from Mid-Plains Community College. The degree will not only allow Erny to provide a better life for her children, it will fulfill her dream of excelling in a career in the automotive industry.
“Waitressing was not paying the bills,” she said. “I knew that if I was going to make life better for my daughters, I needed to make it better for me.”
To say that the road to a career in the automotive industry has been a long and winding one for Erny would be an understatement. By her own admission, she has worked countless jobs as she tried to find her niche.
“After I graduated from North Platte High School mid-term in 1992, I started taking some general education classes at North Platte Community College while working full-time at Hardees,” she said. “I never could figure out what I wanted to do for a living. Eventually I ended up dropping out so I could work.”
After moving to Minnesota the following year, Erny went to dog grooming school. She then switched her focus to real estate, earning her license two days after she turned 21.
But try as she might, Erny could never seem to find a job that was a good fit.
“I kept ending up in traditional, female oriented jobs, but I’ve always been interested in things that guys are into,” she said. “I was a tomboy when I was a kid and my favorite shows had fast cars in them.”
Erny moved back to North Platte when she was 22 and got married not long afterwards. She worked at jobs “here and there” and eventually opened two body shops – one in North Platte and one in Alliance – with her husband.
“I did the bookkeeping, some detailing and prep work, and a lot of customer service,” she said. “I discovered that I really liked all aspects of the automotive industry.”
For the next nine years, Erny worked in a field she enjoyed. The road took an unexpected turn, and following a divorce four years ago, Erny found herself back at square one.
“I went back to waiting tables” she said. “I could barely feed my kids, much less get insurance for us. When you can barely buy hot dogs to feed your kids, let alone buy fruit and veggies…well, I just knew I had to do something.”
Having always considered herself a self-sufficient woman, Erny made the difficult decision to swallow her pride and go on welfare.
“It was at that point that I said I am not going to do this anymore. Something’s got to change,” she said. “I decided to use the system to better myself and get off the system.”
As she considered her options, it didn’t take long for Erny to figure out exactly what she wanted to do – go back to college and earn a degree in automotive technology.
“I didn’t have anyone telling me that I should or shouldn’t do this anymore. I was my own woman!” she said with a chuckle. “I spent too many years wasting time and energy on stuff I wasn’t interested in. I get to do what I want to do now.”
Erny’s interest in welding and experience in the automotive industry helped make classes fun and interesting.
“I can’t bluff my way through something, but if I’m interested in it, I’m all in,” she said.
Following graduation, Erny and her daughters will move to Omaha where she plans to find a job that will support her desire to continue learning and excelling in the automotive industry. In just two short years, she has gone from barely getting by to having a bright future in a growing industry.
“I see this degree as an investment in my family’s future,” she said. “I couldn’t make life better for my daughters until I made it better for me.”