Now in its 23rd year, the Cat dealer-sponsored ThinkBig technician training program at Illinois Central College (ICC) is more mission critical than ever, says Dave Faber, general manager, Caterpillar Global Service Department.
"We're going through a product evolution right now," Faber says, noting the emergence of battery-powered and hydrogen fuel-cell-powered machines while diesel still remains construction's primary power source.
In addition, Cat typically introduces about 100 new or updated products and makes around 250,000 engineering changes each year, Faber says. "Think about the requirements for our techs to service this wide range of technology. It's never been more important that we invest in our workforce."
The ThinkBig/ICC program — the focus of a panel discussion during a recent Caterpillar press event — is structured to train techs in two years with an eight-week classroom/eight-week dealer internship rotation. It is one of several ThinkBig partnerships between Cat dealers and local schools. Both Altorfer Cat and Boyd Cat are partners in the ICC program.
"I was really sold on getting some real world experience working with equipment in a live environment," says Xavier Gingerevans, an Altorfer Cat field tech and ThinkBig graduate. "Understanding how the systems work is really important, but I could see what kind of work I'd be doing by getting to out in the field or in a shop and interacting with customers and working on a machine that might be covered in mud."
Dylan Michel, a current Altorfer Cat ThinkBig student scheduled to graduate next spring, agrees. "I love working with my hands and this splits up the time in the classroom," he says. "I got to jump into the shop and get a feel for all the different divisions, including components, undercarriage work, welding and painting," Michel says.
Most contractors can relate to what Gingerevans pinpointed as the most challenging aspect of the program: "Understanding Tier 4 Final and Tier 4 Interim was the most difficult class," he says.
The internships also give dealers first-hand knowledge on where students will fit best in their shops, says Fred Campbell, an Altorfer store manager. "We can hire them, put them out in the shop and hit the ground running," he says. "When they graduate, they are four to five years ahead of where I was when I started in the shop as a welder."
"Two of the original seven Think Big graduates are general managers at their dealerships," says Mark Matthews, program chair, ICC, which has graduated 437 ThinkBig students in 23 years. "We have a 96% graduation rate, compared to the 17.6% graduation rate from all ICC programs." Students have to maintain a 3.0 GPA.
After graduates complete two years of full-time employment Altorfer offers 100% reimbursement of the estimated $16,000 tuition (not counting housing costs). The remaining 50% of tuition is paid after three years of full-time employment.
"At least 20 of our locations will have at least one Think Big student," says Aimee Boyd Johnson, vice president strategic services, Boyd Cat, which covers Kentucky, southern Indiana, West Virginia and southeastern Ohio.
Boyd has been involved with Think Big for 20 years, and has sponsored more than 150 students during that time. "Most of our graduates go into Shop Tech 1 positions, and some go immediately into a field tech position," Johnson says. "We currently have six Think Big graduates that are serving in management positions, in addition to two graduates who are part of our sales team."
Still, Boyd has problems filling its 18 annual ThinkBig spots.
"One of the biggest obstacles is just making sure people know that there's this great opportunity," says Sarah Markham, HR generalist/recruiter for Altorfer Cat, which has 36 locations in Iowa, Illinois, Missouri and Indiana. Altorfer has also adapted the program to meet student needs, creating a 10-week accelerated program for students who found it difficult to be away from home.
There are currently more than 70,000 Cat dealer techs globally, Faber says. "Our industry needs more than 30,000 new technicians each year," he adds; there are currently more than 1,500 North American Cat dealer job openings right now.
To fill those jobs, Faber says Cat dealers have be an employer of choice, tap a diverse workforce and concentrate on building highly skilled employees.