As heavy construction equipment becomes more sophisticated, the need for trained mechanics expands. General Equipment & Supplies in Fargo, North Dakota, has addressed that need by developing a Komatsu Diesel Technology training program at the North Dakota State College of Science (NDSCS), which teaches technicians about electrical and hydraulic systems.
“As the technology increases on the machines, we needed highly trained technicians,” says Jon Shilling, President and CEO of General Equipment & Supplies.
Donald Shilling, Chairman of the Board of General Equipment & Supplies and one of its founding partners, recognized that need and explored a Komatsu partnership program with NDSCS in Wahpeton, modeled after a program in Oklahoma.
“It looked like a perfect fit for us to develop Komatsu technicians, and it would give us a leading edge against our competition,” says Don Shilling.
Jason Lefor, Shop Foreman, a 15-year employee of General Equipment & Supplies, attended that Oklahoma program, and upon completion, he found it easy to identify and fix equipment issues.
“Customers expect a mechanic to come out who knows what he is doing,” Lefor says.
Ann Pollert, Director of Workforce Development at General Equipment & Supplies, was hired five years ago to create and grow the NDSCS’s Komatsu Diesel Technology training program, now in its fifth year.
Pollert begins searching for candidates in high schools. She visits mechanic and construction classes and attends job fairs. Teachers and former Komatsu program participants often recommend students for the program.
Interested students tour the company, job shadow an employee and have lunch with the technicians to learn more about the company.
“I fell in love with the company, it was a good fit, and I knew it was for me,” says Landon Caughey, Field Service Technician, who graduated from the inaugural North Dakota Komatsu class and within six months was servicing equipment in the field.
“It helped a lot coming in,” Caughey says.
Issac Stone, Service Technician at General Equipment & Supplies and a 2017 graduate of the Komatsu program, says he was impressed with Pollert’s enthusiasm and love of what she does, saying, “I thought, I want to be in that company, too.”
“The program helped me a lot,” Stone continues. “It has been a great opportunity. They teach you for the real world and what to expect.”
The Training Program
Once a candidate decides to attend the Komatsu training program, they work as paid interns at General Equipment & Supplies for about 10 to 12 weeks during the summer after graduation from high school and prior to starting the NDSCS’s two-year, associate-degree program.
“By the end of that summer, we know if they are the right fit for us, if they have a good work ethic, if they show up on time,” Pollert says. “We are not as concerned about what they know about mechanics. They have to have an aptitude, and more importantly a good attitude and work ethic.”
At the same time, the young person learns about General Equipment & Supplies, its culture and values and what the position is like, what the shop environment feels like to work in 40 hours per week.
“They develop and meld into our culture,” Don Shilling reports. “Twenty years from now, we will have a shop full of people who have been working with us, and they will be the best there is.”
The Komatsu students take general coursework during the first seven months. They learn about equipment, electrical, engines, hydraulics, schematics, fuels, English, math, psychology and how to talk with customers. After that, the students alternate eight weeks in school and eight weeks at General Equipment & Supplies during their internship.
“We’d take what we learned in the classroom and use it here,” says Ian Jones, a Technician and a recent graduate of the program. “You do not get burned out at school. I got to come here and make money and use the skills I’ve learned.”
General Equipment & Supplies treats the trainees as part of the company, working during spring and holiday breaks, attending parties, and being included in all company events.
“We make them feel like they are an employee the whole time they are at school,” Pollert says.
The college has eight Komatsu machines, in different states of repair and age for the students to learn on. Students learn diagnostics and how to read repair modules. If they need extra help, experienced technicians at General Equipment & Supplies are willing to assist.
“There are endless resources and ways for you to get the answer,” Jones says. “You get to see stuff done in the field. Once you witness it and get it, it sticks with you.”
Finding the Right Fit
Pollert says General Equipment & Supplies’ main appeal is the company culture.
“You might walk into one business and feel like you belong and into another business and not feel right,” Pollert says. “I try to get the student in here about five times before they start the program.”
Pollert waits for the student to ask for an application. Jon Shilling and Pollert encourage them to look at other programs and dealers to ensure the right fit.
Jones selected the program, because it offered the opportunity to work on front-end loaders, excavators and rock trucks, and he said he liked General Equipment’s core values. “It felt right, like one big family.”
Students completing the Komatsu program are guaranteed a job and are reimbursed the tuition for the program, the amount based on grades, over three years. Jon Shilling said, students with good grades can eliminate any student debt and actually earn while getting their associate degree.
“We hope they continue to work for us and give them a long-term career path,” Pollert says.
The company also grooms technicians for the next step in a career with the company. That was part of the attraction for Caughey, who wants to become a service foreman and manager in the future.
“We have a culture of promoting from within,” Jon Shilling says. “Once they are a technician, they can be promoted to many different positions. They have opportunities throughout the company.”
A graduate of the first class is now a foreman and another inaugural class graduate works in a field service vehicle and three are in General Equipment’s shop.
“These people come out of the program with a lot of knowledge and are a valuable asset,” Pollert says.
Three classes of students have graduated. The fourth class is in its second year and the fifth class is in its first year. Enrollment has increased each year.
“When they graduate from the program, they are ready to go to work on Komatsu products,” Don Shilling says.
Jones swaps engines and performs other repairs and maintenance on the Komatsu heavy machinery.
“This is a good fit for me, because I like helping people,” Jones says. “When you help a customer, it feels good.”
During internships, the students are encouraged to work at different General Equipment & Supplies branches. Some students prefer the other locations.
“The benefit of the program is making sure we have a top-notch service department,” Pollert says.
During the next few years, Don Shilling hopes to broaden the program and engage more Komatsu dealers.
“I am glad that Ann came out to the high school and talked to my diesel class, because this is the best thing that ever happened to me,” says Jones.
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