New diesel mechanics program comes to RCC's New Kent location

Of the five high school students who graduated from Steve Patt's first year teaching diesel mechanics, four of them soon found full-time jobs in the industry.

That's a testament to the demand for diesel mechanic technicians, Patt said. Rappahannock Community College intends to help adult students meet with a new career studies certificate in diesel mechanics coming in May. School officials say the program provides the skills needed to succeed in a high-demand field with local opportunities.

The diesel mechanics program was originally only offered to dual-enrollment high school students when the program started five years ago. Come this year the program will also be offered as an evening class for adults, said Marty Brooks, academic dean of Glenns Campus of Rappahannock Community College.

The program, which is taught at the college's New Kent location, molds students into diesel mechanics ready for entry-level positions in the field, said Patt. Patt is the program director and has 36 years of experience in the industry, working as a diesel mechanic, foreman and shop owner.

Bridging Communities

"I bring the 'real life' to the program," Patt said. For the past two years, he has taught at the Bridging Communities Technical Center, a regional career and technical center serving high school students from six area localities, offering programs such as culinary arts and web design.

The adult learner diesel mechanic program is a joint venture between Bridging Communities, which conducts programming at Rappahannock Community College's New Kent campus, and the college.

The program's expansion comes at a key time, as the industry's workforce starts to get old and new hires are needed to replace retirees, Patt said.

"The need is out there," Patt said.

Filling a shortage

In addition to a changing of the guard, there's a general shortage of diesel mechanic technicians in what is a high-growth field, said Eric Pesola, Rappahannock Community College director of marketing and communications.

A 2016 College of William and Mary study titled "The Equipment Industry Technician Shortage" seems to bear this out.

The study surveyed about 100 associated equipment distributors firms. The firms reported difficulty filling job positions, with the issue in part being a lack of diesel mechanic skills among applicants.

The AED is an international trade association of 800 manufacturing, construction equipment distribution and other organizations engaged in construction, mining and power generation.

The survey also found AED firms report a job opening rate three times the national average.

The study identifies a skills gap, a mismatch between the skills the businesses look for and what skills are present in the workforce, in the industry. This gap is due in part to the retirement of Baby Boomer technical workers and the poor perception of technical vocations among young people.

More than trucks

The adult learners program is aimed at people who are interested in a career change or are already employed in the diesel mechanics field and want to expand on their skills, Brooks said.

And the field is more than just trucks. Technicians with a diesel mechanics certification can find work on the water at Chesapeake Bay marinas working on pleasure boats, or in larger ports working on cargo ship engines. Opportunities exist on land as well, such as jobs maintaining infrastructure and industrial machinery in places like the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Sandston, a business that recently contacted Rappahannock Community College to explore getting the school's diesel program graduates into the factory, Patt said.

While the dual-enrollment program for high school students includes an internship experience, the program geared toward adult learners will drop the internship so students don't get overtaxed, as most will probably be working jobs in addition to taking the classes. Otherwise the programs are the same, Brooks said.

Even without the internship component, adult learners can still take advantage of job opportunities through networks previously built by the program. Adult learners will get the basics of diesel mechanics through the course and will learn the finer details of their professional position with on-the-job training, Patt said.

Instruction at Rappahannock Community College sees students disassemble and then reassemble engines, as well as use computer simulations for homework assignments. Inside the program's workshop are several engines of various types, as well as other instructional equipment like a school bus for students to tinker with, Patt said.

The two-year program will group students into cohorts of eight to 10 students, who will proceed through the program together, Brooks said.

Jacobs can be reached at 757-298-6007.

For more information

Visit rappahannock.edu.

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