North Carolina’s largest community college is one of only 22 that have earned AED accreditation. Wake Technical Community College, a public, non-profit community college, accepts more than 74,000 students annually on its five campuses in the Raleigh, North Carolina, area, offering 240 associate degrees, diplomas and certificates in order to prepare students for their choice of transfer to a university or immediate employment.
“Our motto,” says Jon Paige Kearns, professor and program director, Heavy Equipment and Transport Vehicle/Equipment Systems, “is ‘college for the real world.’” In fact, he adds that he hasn’t seen “one worthy student not get hired somewhere,” due in part to the shortage of technicians. “If they want to go to work, they do.”
The shortage is partly the result of the lack of vocational instruction in schools today, he believes. Programs like those at Wake Tech can make up for the dearth of vocational courses in high school.
Chartered in 1958 as the Wake County Industrial Education Center, the college didn’t start holding classes until 1963. Over the years, its name changed more often than oversight and licensing approval did, but by 1987, Wake Technical Community College was accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools as part of the North Carolina Community College System.
Wake Tech is also accredited by The AED Foundation, which promotes education and workforce development by accrediting community colleges and technical schools that offer education and training in diesel-equipment technology for equipment technician students.
“We’re AED-accredited for the Construction Equipment Systems Tech and John Deere Construction programs,” Kearns explains. “Our Ag program has been around 12 years, but we’re not AED-accredited, although we teach [based on] AED guidelines.”
Following AED guidelines has been beneficial. “Companies recognize AED, and it’s a big deal to them,” Kearns continues. “It’s the No. 1 accreditation.” He adds that it was the industry’s emphasis on AED teachings that “brought us in.”
Students can earn a two-year degree – an Associate in Applied Science – in two AED-accredited programs: John Deere Construction and Forestry Tech or Heavy Equipment. Among the many other degrees they can earn is one in John Deere Agricultural Tech.
The John Deere connection
Several programs at Wake Tech are offered in conjunction with John Deere, which provides support, such as hand tools, paid internships and scholarship money. “There’s an opportunity for tuition and books reimbursement,” Kearns says. “Based on the student’s GPA, they may also get tool incentives – tools for free or prorated.” Uniforms are provided while they’re in school.
Deere also helps fund the accredited schools, in addition to delivering the latest equipment and tools. Kearns says Wake Tech received four new John Deere tractors in the 5000-8000 series for the fall semester.
Other forms of support include training for the instructors on “new stuff,” Kearns indicates. In addition to equipment, scholarship money and funding, Deere also designates a college partner – a corporate territory customer support manager – to interact with the dealers and approve warranty work.
Work-based learning includes working on the latest technology in the industry, as well as on older equipment that may still be used by some companies. “Students gain some hands-on experience by disassembling, measuring and reassembling three ‘dead’ diesel engines,” Kearns elaborates. The last engine is live and must run for five minutes.
Simulations include putting “bugs” into new machines – such as failed sensors – to allow students to connect and find the problem. “It’s good diagnostic experience,” Kearns states.
But some of the real-world training occurs as a direct result of the association with John Deere. For example, a Texas hurricane left a dealership under water. Deere sent a dozen pieces of new equipment to the Wake Tech class so they could rebuild the engines, transmissions and wiring harnesses.
In the program, “students get to be part of everything they would do at a dealership,” Kearns says. They also get to see all aspects of John Deere technology. For example, they tour a factory near the college that makes mowers, and during the last semester of their senior year, they attend a John Deere training center for agriculture in Mooresville.
There are “40-50 classes through the online John Deere University,” Kearns points out, but there is also value in the hands-on training on campus. “We teach the fundamentals, but we also teach specialized classes.”
Computers and drive-by-wire technology have changed the heavy equipment industry. Students must learn to communicate with the machine in order to diagnose problems. “Older techs aren’t adapting as well as the younger kids,” Kearns observes, but says that despite the need for techs, recruitment remains difficult.
Recruitment of students occurs at places like high school job fairs, a North Carolina farm show and the annual FFA convention in Raleigh, where they hold “Gator Wars” – a timed competition to fix mechanical problems on heavy equipment.
In addition, on February 18, 2020, John Deere will host its annual Ag Tech Open House, featuring seminars on electrical, hydraulics, troubleshooting and Final Tier 4 engines. A graduate from the program will be on hand to talk to students, as will counselors and financial aid experts. A ride-along in the tractor for a GPS demonstration will be offered, and lunch provided. “They’re buying in to John Deere.”
It’s not surprising that they’re buying in. Students in many of these programs must be sponsored by a John Deere dealer.
Wake Tech draws students from North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. More than half are right out of high school, but Kearns says an increasing number are former military personnel transitioning to civilian jobs.
“We just had our second ag tech student out of the Army, where he was an Apache helicopter mechanic.” There have been two female students (“but not in the Ag program”) and two female instructors.
The current roster includes 35 students in the Heavy Equipment program and 12 in Construction and Forestry, but Kearns says the Ag program attracts a larger number: currently, there are 35 Ag Tech students, despite what he calls a “significant ag industry in this region,” citing North Carolina farmers as “major cotton producers and soybean growers.”
Upon completion of their chosen program, students receive a completion plaque, and a graduation dinner is held, to which the John Deere dealer sponsors are invited. Kearns, who keeps in touch with his students, describes them as a tight-knit group who are “happy they went through the program.”
Employment could be the cause of the happiness; Kearns explains that the sponsoring dealership often hires the student. And he points out that “most dealers have multiple locations,” extending additional opportunities. Some students from rural areas stay in the metro area after graduation for further career options, he adds.
Whichever location they choose, Kearns deems this a “service industry world” with ample opportunity for trained technicians to work on heavy equipment in the agriculture, construction and forestry industries. “That’s where the jobs are.”