Cover Story: Teaming Up With Tech Schools

Don’t let the name fool you.

It may sound like a small vocational school for local Wyoming residents, but in fact, young men and women from every state in the union attend WyoTech’s sprawling campuses across the country. Started in 1966 in Laramie, WY, WyoTech features automotive schools in Sacramento and Long Beach, CA, an aviation school in Boston, a motorcycle school in Daytona Beach, FL and a diesel school in Blairsville, PA.

Still, Laramie is where it all began, and that is where you’ll find WyoTech President Guy Warpness helping to mentor around 700 diesel technicians a year. A proud alumnus, Warpness is a true believer in a system that has already turned out a couple generations of top technicians. The school is a true success story in an industry that desperately needs one, and touring the extensive shops recently with Warpness, it does not take long to understand his enthusiasm.

GROWING REPUTATION

The Laramie campus offers three six-month core programs—automotive, collision refinishing and diesel—and all students must take an additional three-month specialty course for a total of 1,500 hours to graduate. Warpness says many students take an additional three-month class after their nine-month term to add to their education and make them more employable. Classes fill up with students from around the country—the average student travels around 1,000 miles to attend; a testament to WyoTech’s growing, mainly word-of-mouth reputation.

Diesel program coordinator Chad Enyeart says the advantage of the core program for students and employers alike is that instructors do not get overly industry-specific, so that knowledge can be applied to a wide range of applications.

“It’s not about over-the-road trucks, it’s not about marine diesel or off-road diesel; we just teach the basics, and that applies to any diesel industry,” he says. “That’s where our specialty programs come in (later). We have an advanced diesel course, strictly towards Class-7 and 8 over-the-road trucks.”

“SOFT” SKILLS

For many students, finding a job at the end is the easy part—the tough thing can be adapting to and thriving in a professional environment. From the very start, students are trained not only as technicians, but as well-dressed, well-mannered, professionals; not always the easiest thing for recent high school graduates, who make up about 95 percent of the population.

Warpness says “soft skills” such as proper attire and punctuality are critical to finding and keeping a good job.

“The reason a lot of employers come to our campus is we have a very strict student conduct code,” he says. “We take it very seriously.”

Enyeart said there are about 40 items that students are held accountable for, from prohibiting cell phone use to tucking in their shirts.

“That’s what the world is going to expect,” he says. “We’re not fast-paced but we’re consistent, just like a work environment. At the end of the day, it’s our professionalism policy and our tough, regimented curriculum that’s preparing these guys for the industry. And that’s what it’s all about.”

It’s not so much as bridging the generation gap as showing the youngsters how things need to be done in the real world, Warpness says.

“Being a baby boomer, we’re dealing with a whole different kid (who is used to) a different type of structure, so our challenge is to restructure that kid to fit into a fleet environment that is more than likely being run by a baby boomer,” he says. “We don’t feel we’re training students for a job—a job is Burger King or Wal-Mart—we hope we’re preparing these students for a career. If a fleet or dealership plans on growing, they’re not really hiring a technician, they’re hiring a future service manager.”

KEEPING UP

WyoTech also keeps its finger on the pulse of the industry. Twice a year, school administrators bring in an advisory committee of industry professionals—fleet officials, dealers, alumni—to evaluate the entire curriculum. Enyeart says the information provided by the group is invaluable.

“They tell us, ‘This is spot-on, you’re doing a good job here,’ or ‘This is a bit antiquated, you need to get rid of it,’ or ‘This is new, you need to bring this in,’” he says. “It is a never-ending battle.”

Warpness says school officials work with fleets to bring in current component systems and tools, to make sure students and instructors alike are training on the most modern technology.

“We base our curriculum around the industry need and then it’s our challenge to get that equipment and tooling in to give them what they want out of a graduate,” he says. “We supply the industry with the product, and that’s our students. If we have two customers here it’s the student and the employer, and if we don’t succeed with those two, we’re in trouble.”

WyoTech’s contract with PACCAR ensures students have modern trucks and parts with real-world problems for students to repair.

“It’s great for everybody,” Enyeart says. “They send us their worst trucks, so we’ve always got fresh trucks, every class. It (doesn’t) get any more real—those trucks are right off the road and we hold the student accountable for that work because those trucks are going right back on the road you and I drive on.”

QUALIFIED INSTRUCTION

Of course, a school is only as good as its teachers, and Enyeart is thrilled with the quality of the 17 instructors in the diesel program, who provide a 20:1 student-to-teacher ratio for the core program; around 13:1 in the advanced diesel course.

WyoTech only selects instructors who are fresh from the industry and brings in trainers throughout the year to keep them up to speed on new technologies. Any candidate for instructor must have a minimum seven years’ shop experience in the past 10 years to even be considered.

Darrell DeBoer has taught the advanced diesel course for about four years after spending the past 20 years in the industry, including a decade in the Army. He says giving students a solid foundation of basic knowledge gives them a big advantage when they get to the workplace.

“A lot of them come from areas where they didn’t have shop in high school, so we try to get them all on the same even keel and build from there, and that’s what the core program does,” he says. “Then their next program, whether it be advanced diesel or street rod or chassis (fabrication), it brings them up to the next level.”

Being able to train students for nine straight months is a huge advantage both for them and their future employer, DeBoer says.

“We produce the student most companies take one-and-a-half or two years to produce, and we’re showing them a work ethic also,” he says. “We are preparing them, full-round, for the industry. For a technician who just comes in off the street with no training, by the time he has worked on everything these graduates have, it’s two or three years. These guys can hit the ground running.”

Core diesel program instructor Chad Parsons says the best part of his job is when he gets that “phone call” from a recent grad.

“They’ve been gone three or four months and they’ve got a job and they’re doing well—they just call you up and thank you,” he says.

Parsons says WyoTech’s well-rounded approach was developed from finding out what employers are looking for.

“(They) know they are getting someone who has the ability to jump on pretty much anything,” he says. “We’re developing professionals, and that’s how we want them to present themselves when we leave here. We tell them that they’re going to leave here smarter than us, because they get our knowledge combined, and six months down the road they should be out there developing their own knowledge, which is going to put them that much farther ahead.”

HIGH DEMAND

With a stunning 99.6 percent industry placement rate within six months of graduation, the students are clearly getting a good deal, but so are the fleets who hire them. WyoTech holds career fairs every three months, and during one session last year, more than 100 employers visited campus for interviews; most from the diesel industry.

“That’s the heaviest recruited area we have because of the need, and diesel is probably the most diversified program we have, simply because of the areas they can go into,” Warpness says. “The industry is very diversified as far as where our students can go to work.”

The key to providing fleets with what they need is giving every student a solid foundation of fundamental, entry-level skills. Warpness says that’s the result of working so closely with fleets.

“What we’d like to get from the industry is, ‘When an entry level guy walks into your shop, what skill sets would you like him to have in place?’ What tasks is he going to be accomplishing?’ Then we come back and can train the student toward that,” he says. “And once they get to the fleet, it’s up to them to build the other skills.”

To lay the groundwork for a future career in management, WyoTech also offers a popular, three-month program called “Applied Service Management,” and an associates’ degree. Many WyoTech graduates end up in management positions because of the opportunities provided to them at school. Warpness says that is the idea.

“Once you get into an industry, a lot of other doors open,” he says. “If you had asked me 20-some years ago when I graduated from here if I’d be the president of WyoTech Laramie, I’d have thought you fell out of a tree, but my education here opened a lot of other doors and allowed me to come back here as an instructor.”

MAKING IT

Mark Swift is another of WyoTech’s many success stories. A 1982 graduate, Swift is now the vice president of field maintenance for Penske Truck Leasing—North Central Region, but it all started when WyoTech officials took an active interest in him.

“I made an initial contact—just investigating the school—and they sent a recruiter to my hometown,” Swift says. “They were very professional.”
From day one, Swift says he knew he was a part of something special.

“They stress success,” he says. “Success when you’re there, success in your career after leaving. Their curriculum contains a lot of detailed study; it was very regimented and the teaching environment is very professional. It really helps prepare you for the real world. They really work on building your work skills and life skills.”

After graduation, Swift joined Penske in 1987 and steadily moved up the ranks. Now, he keeps an eye out for fellow WyoTech grads to fill positions.

“They’ve got the skills they need,” he says. “We’ve hired WyoTech grads in the past and we’re going to continue to cultivate our relationship. We’ve got more than 5,000 technicians across North America and we’re growing, so we’re always searching for new talent.”

Penske Truck Leasing human resources representative Shannon Prindiville says the company is a fixture at WyoTech’s recruiting events.

“One reason is the geographic availability of their students, another is the ease of working with WyoTech and the quality of their graduates,” she says. “We’ve seen superior quality and professionalism of their students, (who) come to our recruiting booths prepared for the interview with their transcripts and resumes in hand, they have a groomed, professional appearance and a thoughtful list of questions for the employers. It’s certainly an advantage, and that’s what distinguishes WyoTech.”

The Applied Service Management program is one Penske consistently draws from, Prindiville says.

“We feel that WyoTech has made a serious commitment to the future of service management and leadership through this program and its curricula,” she says. “The students come out of that program with a basic understanding of laws and guidelines governing the supervision and hiring of employees, along with some financial and business skills, so it’s an incredible advantage for a student coming to an employer like Penske with both a technical background and basic business acumen.”

NEXT GENERATION

Jason Salmon, 27, of Stockton, CA, is planning to use his nine months’ training to work in the heavy equipment or marine equipment industries. After serving in the Navy for five years, he says he appreciates the discipline instilled at WyoTech, as well as the training. With advanced diesel training under his belt, he is deciding on multiple job offers before he graduates.

“There’s a lot in the industry you can get into, so your choices are wide open,” Salmon says. “The teachers will bend over backwards to make sure you get your stuff done. If you’re struggling, they’ll make sure you get the help.”

Being around company officials at the quarterly job fairs is a big help in preparing to find a future employer, he says.

“It’s very helpful because a lot of people come straight from school and they’ve never done interviews and you could have 12 or 13 interviews in two days,” Salmon says. “A lot of people walk out of here with jobs. You get the best bang for your buck, basically. I really enjoyed being here and am enthusiastic about getting out there and getting into the workforce.”

Joseph Jensen, 18, of Colorado Springs, CO, also has a job waiting for him when he graduates from his advanced diesel program. Thanks to his diverse coursework, he says he is now ready for wherever his career takes him.

“You can go into so many different industries—over the road, marine,” he says. “I do plan on going up into management over time—start off and grow with a company. The (curriculum) has helped a lot because when I get out of here, they’re going to start me on (preventative maintenance inspections) and things like that, and we’ve actually got to work on it, so when we come out of here we have the experience and know the correct way to do things, instead of us developing a bad habit.”

Flint Nakamura, Jr., 18, of Maui, HI came a long way to Laramie after seeing an ad for WyoTech on TV. He talked with a representative at a college fair, and decided to take the leap.

“When you go from 80 degree weather to 20, that was hard for me, but this is a really good program,” he says. “I learned a lot more than if was going to stay home and just do on-the-job training.”

Coming from a third-generation construction family, Nakamura, Jr. is looking forward to returning to his considerably warmer home state to begin a career of his own in the industry. He says that dream might have never been realized if not for WyoTech.

“This is an opportunity of a lifetime,” he says. “That’s one thing instructors stress—‘You can’t do it’ doesn’t exist. There’s always a way to do something, and you’ve got to do it right. There’s no short cuts. They stress your safety and the safety of the person who’s driving that truck and everyone else on the road.”

FUTURE SHOCK

At a time when the shortage of qualified technicians is becoming severe, WyoTech is well-positioned to provide fleets with needed reinforcements in the next few years, Enyeart says.

“It’s a dynamic problem,” he says. “Clearly, all the boomers retiring in the next five years is a huge factor, and another is this (current) generation is very sharp, and that type of person really shies away from getting dirty—they have seen a world where they can make money and stay clean. I don’t think there are as many kids in the high schools (learning shop skills). It’s a series of events, and the industry is doing it to itself because trucking has grown so much in the last five years, so of course, the demand for technicians go up.”

Locating a consistent source of young, talented technicians these days is critical for a large employer like Penske, Prindiville says.

“When you get the right person in the door—our staff and our employment base is the window to the organization—that means a lot to our customers,” she says. “Another is that we have the ability to retain and develop our future leaders when we’re able to attract a quality hire, so our talent pipeline will be filled with quality people we can continuously develop and improve and who could go on to be future leaders.”

Warpness says fleet officials that are concerned about not getting enough young, quality technicians need to get out to the high schools and make their presence felt.

“It’s getting harder every year to build interest,” he says. “There’s still that veil over the industry that this is a backyard, blue-collar (job) you don’t want to do for the rest of your life.”

Otherwise, Enyeart says fleets are more than welcome to come see for themselves the kind of quality WyoTech is producing.

“We have four graduations a year, so literally we are a pipeline for technicians into the industry,” Enyeart says. “We have graduates that are going back to your hometown.”

Warpness sounds like a proud papa when talking about how the “legend” of WyoTech continues to grow.

“I don’t feel we made the reputation of WyoTech, our students did,” he says. “They’re the ones who carry that reputation out the door, and what they bring to the employers is what builds our reputation.”

SCHOLARSHIPS AVAILABLE

WyoTech and the Professional Technicians’ Development Committee—a group started several years ago by industry experts to attract more technicians— offer two scholarships a year to its diesel schools in Laramie and Blairsville; providing nine months’ tuition, worth more than $25,000, but Warpness says it has been difficult to find fleets or dealerships to sponsor candidates in recent years.

“To apply for it, they have to have a (Technology and Maintenance Councill)TMC fleet or dealer member apply for it and submit them to TMC,” Warpness says. “We’ve had three or four students go through it now so far. The idea was to get the fleets into the high schools, and if they knew a good kid in the diesel field, then they could sponsor that kid.”

The TMC scholarship committee determines the winner of that scholarship, though Warpness says only two have even applied for the scholarships in the last two years, something he hopes will soon change because of the great opportunity young potential technicians are missing out on.

“We’re having a hard time giving these away,” he says. “Hopefully, even if it’s an employee’s son or daughter there who’s interested in this and wants to go to school and hopefully come back and go to work for the fleet. We’ve had some great kids come through so far, but not near as many as we’d like to see.”

For more information on the WyoTech/TMC scholarship, contact TMC at 703-838-1763 or visit them on the web at http://tmc.truckline.com

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