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Training tomorrow's technicians today

By Jennifer M. Latzke

Time and again, producers say efficient and effective farm equipment maintenance is vital to the success of any operation. A good service technician and his support team are just as valuable to a farmer as a timely application service or a detail-oriented crop adviser.

But, with the increasing technical complexity of today's tractors and a reliance on computers for precision agriculture tools, companies are finding it difficult to find people to fill troubleshooting positions in their service departments.

It's a need that Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kan., is working to fulfill.

Going beyond shop class

At the Kansas Technology Center on PSU's southeast Kansas campus, students have opportunities to develop the very technical skills for which employers like Caterpillar, John Deere, Case and others are looking. With $16 million in equipment, 70 technical labs and 260 workstations, hands-on learning is the norm for students.

Tim Dell is an assistant professor and the chairman of the automotive technology department at PSU. The program at PSU is one of the top four automotive technical and business management programs in the United States and consistently boasts 85 to 95 percent placement rates of its graduates. It offers a 2-Year Automotive Service Program and a 4-Year Automotive Technology Program with six options of study.

Within the 4-year program, students can choose the diesel and heavy equipment option, or DHE. Here they learn about agricultural and construction equipment and are able to understand not only how the machine is built, but how it correctly operates, how to troubleshoot when it doesn't, and how to eventually communicate with the end user, Dell explained. Graduates will be prepared for management positions in automotive and heavy equipment corporations, customer service positions, technician training and technical hotline positions or as actual service technicians for a dealership near you.

"Our graduates assist customers and dealers in figuring out problems with equipment," Dell said. "They train service representatives and assist dealers. They help with real-world testing before a product launch, or they write service manuals for the product."

The total department numbers about 320 to 350 students, and class and lab sizes are kept small so that students have greater opportunities to learn.

Corporate partners

Corporate partnerships are a hallmark of PSU's commitment to training tomorrow's technicians. Working with corporations like Caterpillar, AGCO, John Deere, and others allows PSU to offer students better real-world education.

"Employers are always on our campus," Dell said. Whether it's through donations of equipment for students to learn on in lab classes, or via technical seminars on the latest advancements, future employers help in student development.

In the DHE program, for example, PSU is host to the Caterpillar ThinkBIGGER program, which is the only one of its kind in the world. This program is designed to provide a four-year degree option to students who have earned a two-year Caterpillar ThinkBIG degree. Caterpillar has 10 ThinkBIG schools in the United States. The two-year ThinkBIG program teaches how to service Caterpillar equipment with diagnostic tools and combines classroom work with a state-of-the-art lab setting. With the two-year program students have the opportunity for internships with local Cat dealerships. PSU's 4-year ThinkBIGGER program prepares students for management opportunities. It teaches technology management, theory, logic and business skills along with technical skills. Graduates from the ThinkBIGGER program earn a Bachelor of Science degree in technology.

Partnerships also allow PSU to teach students about the latest technology.

"Corporate sponsors do have access to many types of machinery and equipment prototypes," Dell said. Often, he added, companies will donate prototypes to the program for training purposes, or for troubleshooting if there's a glitch their engineers can't figure out. They've also helped by offering multiple copies of tractor components for students to study. In the heavy equipment lab, for example, there are six to eight replicas of transmissions, so that 20 students can all be working on technical skills at nearly the same pace, Dell said. Caterpillar has donated a D6 Dozer, 160M motorgrade and a Challenger MT-845 to learn to diagnose issues with electronics, the powertrain and transmission.

The extracurricular bonus

Labs are just one way students can learn at PSU, Dell said. They're encouraged to have summer internships throughout their school career.

"Internships provide tremendous benefits to students," Dell said. Working with an employer in a mentoring way allows students to apply their knowledge in a real-world setting. Time spent in internships also solidifies a student's career choice so that when they graduate, they are sure of their decision, Dell said.

Extracurricular work with various competition teams adds to the total student experience, as well, Dell said. PSU is known as a competitor to beat in the Mini Baja competition, where teams of students build a Baja car from the chassis up and compete with other teams from around the world. In 2005 and 2006, PSU sent a team of students to South Korea for five months to compete in the international Society of Automotive Engineers Mini Baja series, where they won the endurance event both years.

PSU students also participate in SkillsUSA, which prepares students for future leadership roles.

All of these opportunities-from high-tech lab spaces, to international competitive teams-combine to create graduates that are highly prized in their fields.

In this tough economy, Dell is proud to say graduates from the technical program, especially the DHE program, have employers eager to hire. The only thing limiting them is if they choose to limit their opportunities because of geography, Dell said.

No matter where they land, though, Dell's proud to say PSU graduates continue the course of excellence they began in Pittsburg-playing a role in the success of American agriculture.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807, or jlatzke@hpj.com.

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