Fixing Tomorrow's Machines
Technicians are a squeaky wheel in the workforce crisis, but one Midwest dealer has found a slick way to attract workers

By Jeff Rubenstone
Uniformed FABTECH students spend four days a week in the classroom, learning the ins and outs of heavy equipment in an academic environment.
Fabco
Uniformed FABTECH students spend four days a week in the classroom, learning the ins and outs of heavy equipment in an academic environment.

Becoming an equipment service technician in today's world requires serious training. But society's pressure on youth to get a college education, the perceived dirty nature of the work and the high cost of tools and tuition have long deterred workers from entering the field. A pioneering equipment dealer in Wisconsin appears to be turning all of this around, working with a local college by offering training classes that count for college credits.

While equipment makers place emphasis on their machines' ease of use for operators, the increasingly labyrinthine innards require a well-trained workforce to keep a fleet up and running. As the U.S. Dept. of Labor describes with its characteristic deadpan, "Opportunities should be excellent for people with formal post-secondary training in diesel or heavy-equipment mechanics; those without formal training will face keen competition."

The normal career path runs through technical colleges or privately run training programs, but each has its disadvantages. Technical colleges churn out graduates, but job placement can be a hurdle. Private training programs can get students into the shop quickly, but they usually lack the formal credentials that jump-start a career.

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FABTECH's Technical College

An independently owned Caterpillar dealer in Milwaukee is embarking on an experimental project to capture the best of both approaches by attempting to train new technicians in an academic setting in relatively little time. Bob Bailey, the program's architect, says, "FABTECH is not a training program; this is a technical college education. A lot of people make that mistake."

The confusion is understandable, as Bailey, human resources executive for authorized CAT dealer FABCO Equipment Inc., has a history of setting up training programs to mint future mechanics. FABTECH graduates will receive direct assistance from FABCO with job placement, especially in filling much-needed slots at its facilities across Wisconsin and upper Michigan. But that is where the similarities to normal dealership-sponsored training programs end.

Students gets the full college experience, including the use of Fox Valley Technical College facilities.
Fabco
Students gets the full college experience, including the use of Fox Valley Technical College facilities.

The program is still in its infancy. Last August, 25 students entered the inaugural class, and 22 of them are now studying heavy-equipment maintenance and repair in both formal classroom and traditional shop settings. For the duration of the one-year term, students live in college dorms, eat in college cafeterias, wear FABTECH uniforms, attend daylong classes four days a week and have at least two hours of homework each night.

Despite the perks, FABTECH is trying to keep costs low to draw in applicants. Working through Fox Valley Technical College, Oshkosh, Wis., students have access to the same financial aid programs as those from other colleges. FABTECH supplies diesel service tools during the program, and after graduation students are able to purchase a tool box and tool set from Matco Tools at a significant, prearranged discount. The final cost also can be paid off through an interest-free payroll deduction plan if they go on to work with FABCO.

The FABTECH program includes regular sessions in a garage 'lab' working on Caterpillar equipment.
Fabco
The FABTECH program includes regular sessions in a garage 'lab' working on Caterpillar equipment.

While FABTECH may have the trappings of the college experience, every students' declared major is heavy equipment. In addition to their time in the classroom, they spend one day a week shadowing a service technician. "Working in the lab is what the students really love," says Bailey. "They're so enthusiastic, they won't take breaks."

After completing the core curriculum, the students will have earned college credit toward an associate's degree in applied science from Fox Valley, whose Oshkosh campus provides the collegial setting for the program. The college is an equal partner with FABCO, an unusual joint venture. "I don't know of anyone else doing something like this," Bailey notes. "There is a real shortage of diesel service technicians, and with FABTECH we are able to attract and provide knowledge to high-school students and graduates about careers in equipment centers like FABCO."

In addition to general studies of diesel- engine systems, the program offers career tracks such as construction-equipment technician, electric-power and marine technician and rental-services technician. Students who entered last August will have earned an associate's degree by next August if they stick with the program to the end.

Teamwork is encouraged, as students learn the dynamics of working with their fellow mechanics.
Fabco
Teamwork is encouraged, as students learn the dynamics of working with their fellow mechanics.

"Typically, it takes two years for an [associate's] degree," Bailey explains. The program "is running year-round, aside from Thanksgiving and small breaks in the winter and spring." The program's focus is on qualifying students to work in the real world as soon as possible. The condensed schedule can be hectic, but the students sticking with it have yet to show the strain, with 21 out of 22 on the school's dean's list.

Other equipment dealers and trade unions have attempted to train workers in an educational environment, but few have tried to provide the full college experience. With the shortage of qualified technicians reaching far beyond the upper Midwest, Bailey has been attracting a lot of attention with his cut-out-the-middleman approach to recruiting. "We didn't start to promote FABTECH until November 2006, and in four to six months, we had 70 applications."

Other educators are taking notice, adds Bailey. "A private college in Texas is interested in setting up a similar program in their area," he says. "We have been getting calls from all over the country."

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