A Solution To The Technician Shortage - Best Practices
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A Solution To The Technician Shortage

Written By: Mary Sedor

Article Date: 04-03-2006
Copyright(C) 2008 Associated Equipment Distributors. All Rights Reserved.

Five Dealers ThinkBIG to address their workforce needs early.

Seven years ago, Caterpillar created a unique program to address the growing technician shortage.

Today, the industry is still feeling the shortage, and five Caterpillar dealers have joined with Portland Community College to bring Caterpillar's ThinkBIG program to the Northwest.

The dealers are

  • Western States Equipment Co., Boise, ID
  • The Halton Co. in Portland, Ore.Peterson Machinery Co., Eugene, Ore.
  • NC Machinery, Seattle, Wash. and
  • Tractor and Equipment, Billings, Mont.
"Portland Community College and Caterpillar dealers in the Northwest are forming a partnership to train the next generation of Caterpillar technicians," says Dennis Massingham, employment coordinator for Western States Equipment.

What is ThinkBIG?

"ThinkBIG was created as a corporate reply to a very serious technician shortage," says Steve Hitch, dealer manpower development manager for Caterpillar. "Today more than 44 dealers are working with 15 colleges in five countries.

Graduates of the ThinkBIG program enter the workforce as high caliber service technicians, with experience that is equivalent to five to seven years on the job.

"Our industry is in a very big upward growth curve," says Hitch, "but we have fewer people to work with for more jobs created globally than we've ever faced before."

Students who apply for ThinkBIG must meet strict entrance requirements. They must be ready to enter college as represented by their entrance exam scores and personal interviews.

The majority of students applying are just out of high school. They are hand-picked - not only do they take a college entrance exam, but the dealers involved in the program interview each student. Dealers sponsor students in the program, and the students know who their employers will be the first day of school.

"They are future employees, rigorously selected and held to academic standards of a minimum of a 3.0 GPA," says Hitch.

Students who have been accepted into the program submit themselves to a very hectic schedule. Over a 10-week period, they complete the equivalent of 20-weeks of class. During the second half of the semester, the students work a paid internship at the dealership that is sponsoring them. The program continues on the 10-week rotational schedule for the duration of the two-year program.

The program at Portland Community College, which is still awaiting state approval, is 101 quarter credits, in which students learn about electronics, hydraulics, power train, systems diagnostic testing, and more. In addition, they complete required general education courses, such as English, speech, mathematics and social science.

"Not only do these students have the technical skills they need," says Massingham, "But they are able to communicate effectively with the customer."

More than 90 percent of the students who complete the ThinkBIG program return to their sponsoring dealership.

The Dealers' Role

In the Northwest, the five dealers involved in the program are responsible for recruiting 24 applicants for the Caterpillar Dealer Service Technician Program, better known as ThinkBIG, at Portland Community College.
Once the dealers have selected students for the program, the students are supplied with an entry-level toolset, a laptop computer and a uniform to wear to school.

"We actually hire the students," says Massingham. "Not only do they have to meet our employability standards, but they have to meet the admissions standards of Portland Community College."

During the 10-week period when students are working in the dealership, they are assigned three mentors.

"When they return to our dealership, they get to practice what they've just learned with senior level technicians who have agreed to work with the students," says Massingham.

During the students' internship, they are paid an entry level technician's wage.

"They can earn enough money while they're attending college to be able to graduate from college debt-free," says Massingham.

At the end of the two-year program, the students receive an Associate's Degree in Applied Science in Dealer Service Technology. Students who choose to continue their education can continue on to the ThinkBIGGER program at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kan. At Pittsburg State, they receive a Bachelors in Applied Science.

What Western States Equipment expects, and other Caterpillar dealers across the country have realized, is that they'll receive productive technicians with the skill set needed to be successful at a Cat dealership.

"What makes this program great is that there is dealership and manufacturer support," says Massingham. "They have the latest equipment and OEM- and dealer-specific tooling, and they're being trained by experienced Cat instructors."

Industry Impact

In May 2006, ThinkBIG will have graduated 780 technician. Next year, that number will increase to more than 1,100.

"The technician shortage is the main reason we're doing this," says Massingham. "The state-run heavy equipment and diesel technology programs are at risk. We think the ThinkBIG program is the future of professional technical education."

The next big crisis, he says, will be the lack of instructors. Some programs have already begun to close due to a lack of qualified instructors.

"We're doing this to meet our future workforce needs," says Massingham. "We'll have an advantage because we'll have a mechanism in place for training our technicians."

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