When the 1985 yellow fire truck donated by Rural Metro pulled into the garage bay at EVIT, about a dozen students climbed on board eager to start their hands-on study of the big vehicle in Diesel Technology class.
Business advisors to Mesa’s East Valley Institute of Technology wish there were more skilled mechanics as eager as these EVIT students to do such work.Valley industries – from auto dealerships to public utilities -- are struggling to fill diesel mechanic positions with workers who are highly skilled, love a challenge, and are able to think through and solve problems.
“It’s a very demanding job,” said Tom Pelletti, team leader and shop foreman for Earnhardt Ford in Chandler. “If they don’t have a passion for it … they’re just wasting their time.”
In 2010, the median annual wage of diesel techs and mechanics was $40,850, according to the most recent statistics available from the U.S. Department of Labor. But the top 10 percent earned more than $60,830. In addition, the department says many diesel mechanics who work for truck fleet dealers and repair shops receive a commission.
The department predicts employment of diesel mechanics will grow 15 percent by 2020.
So why is there a shortage of people seeking work in diesel mechanics and technology?
“It’s dirty work. It’s very dirty,” Pelletti said. “And it’s very demanding. You have to have a wide range of knowledge. A lot of it is problem-solving. You have to like a challenge.”
That pretty much describes the students in Gary Swinehart’s Diesel Technology class at EVIT. And they take a lot of pride in what they do, with some describing their experience at EVIT as being “like going to college.”
Samantha Reaves, 17, a senior at Fountain Hills High School and one of two girls in the Diesel Technology program, started out in EVIT’s automotive classes but switched after one month. Diesel, she said, is more interesting and she enjoys working with large trucks.
“There are more opportunities in the diesel industry,” she said.
The way 17-year-old Cooper Sparr sees it, diesel mechanics solve problems – and that’s not so different from what she plans to do one day as a veterinarian.
“It’s learning to think in different ways,” saidSparr, a senior at Arcadia High School in the Scottsdale Unified School District. Plus, she said, the skills she’s learning at EVIT could lead to a job that helps pay her way through college and veterinary school.
They’re learning what they need to know from a teacher who is as passionate about diesel as they are.
“Diesel technology of this generation has changed dramatically due to the rising cost of fuel and emissions standards resulting in repair facilities demanding highly skilled and educated technicians like never before,” Swinehart said. “That high demand for qualified diesel technicians is creating job security, benefits and wages beyond anything in the past. Almost everything that you touch today was delivered by a diesel engine.”
Swinehart, who started teaching at EVIT in the fall of 2011 after working more than 30 years in the diesel industry, likens the experience to a certain famous female chef.
“Julia Child said it best: ‘You’ll never know everything about anything, especially if it’s something you love,’” he said, “and my students love to learn.”
Colin Williams, public information officer for Rural Metro, said the ambulance, fire and emergency services provider employs 30 diesel mechanics because every Rural Metro vehicle runs on diesel. And, EVIT has become like a “farm team” to Rural Metro, with 60 of the company’s current and former firefighters coming from EVIT’s Fire Science program.
So it was a natural fit in January for Rural Metro to donate an E-ONE diesel fire engine to the school’s Diesel Technology program.
“We like it because that fire engine served as a front line fire engine for a long time,” Williams said, “and now, it doesn’t go to the fire truck graveyard. It gets a second lease on life by educating people.”
Rhane Echeverria, 17, a junior at Tempe’s Corona del Sol High School, and Garrett Mack, 18, a senior at Ahwatukee Foothills’ Mountain Pointe High School, are two of the EVIT students who will be learning while working on the donated fire engine.
Echeverria plans to attend Central Arizona College to further his education in diesel and then return to his father’s farm to use the skills he’s learned. Mack also wants to go to CAC or the Ford training program to become a mechanic – as well as a truck driver.
Both students say EVIT is giving them a good jump-start on careers in the diesel industry. Like other EVIT programs, the diesel technology courses were created to serve a need in the Valley market.
EVIT is where “you can learn something you’re actually interested in,” Mack said. “This actually takes you somewhere in the real world.”
To learn more about EVIT’s Diesel/Heavy Equipment Technology program, visit www.evit.com/diesel.
CeCe Todd is a public information officer for the East Valley Institute of Technology and former journalist covering education issues in Arizona.