By Steve Hoemberg
Director of Outreach
Minnesota State Transportation Center of Excellence
It’s not every day that a spry young college student gets to learn shoulder-to-shoulder next to a fellow student who is a 40-year work force veteran. But, at Central Lakes College (Staples Campus) that is happening. A lot is happening. Some of it measurable, like recent Associated Equipment Distributors (AED) reaccreditation and new accreditation, of the Diesel Equipment Technician A.A.S. degree and diploma programs, respectively. And some of it less easily defined, like the value and impact of a non-traditional student also serving as a mentor.
The idea of highly trained, specialized technicians is the driving force behind many of the hyper-focused programs available in our state, and the Minnesota State system does that well. A number of programs designed to articulate directly into corporate dealerships and industries with hundreds, maybe thousands of specialized pieces of equipment. But, what do we (Minnesota State) provide for the student who is looking for college-level growth, and can only afford to take one year off from the family farm? Or, the one whose employment options require technicians with a diverse understanding of equipment from multiple industries? Or, students like Brian Dobson, who bring real-world skills and experience to the table, and have the capacity to work through an intense program in a short amount of time? The one year Diesel Equipment Technician program at Central Lakes College (Staples) is Minnesota State’s unique opportunity designed to do all those things.
The rigorous one year Diesel Equipment Technician program at CLC is a condensed two-year program diversely focusing on repair and maintenance of hydraulic/hydrostatic systems, power trains, diesel electronics, engine systems of off-road construction heavy equipment, agricultural equipment, and on-highway vehicles. Jeff Klehr and Paul Zimmerman, instructors of the CLC program, are reluctant to “toot their own horn,” but AED accreditation is only awarded to the nation’s most exceptional programs taught by the highest quality instructors. Jeff, with 18 years of industry background as a heavy equipment mechanic, brings a modesty and thoughtful pace to his classroom that permeates the attitudes of his students. Paul started his 18 year career as a heavy diesel truck technician while still in high school, in addition to fixing everything on the family farm still today, which adds a practical perspective to his snappy delivery in the classroom. They clearly work as a team – a unified and supportive front – intent on providing not only high quality instruction, but on fostering an atmosphere conducive to family-style learning for every student who walks through their door, traditional or otherwise. They are too modest to brag about their industry knowledge, and their naturally lighthearted yet professional approach to mentor-style teaching is a gift that I sense even they don’t realize they are providing most days. Their students are creative, thoughtful, respectful, and fun – a reflection of the environment that their instructors have created. When their students are not at their best, Jeff and Paul take the time to have those tough conversations about life and work, and their students trust them. Their expertise is not restricted to subject area, but also in interpersonal relationships. Jeff and Paul are ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
A walk through Jeff’s shop at CLC will reveal something very unique, and not by design, but the result of a culture that is open and inviting, and a non-traditional student named Brian Dobson. Brian spent the first 43 years of his adult life working in manufacturing, first as a general laborer and eventually as a welder. But, like so many, he found himself at a crossroads when the local plant shut down. The company had been bought out and if employees were willing to relocate they could keep working with the company. Keyword: relocate. A life-long resident of Staples, with family and grandchildren all rooted in the area, moving out of state to wrap-up the end of his career was not a reasonable option. A conversation with his son about opportunities close to home for career training, his desire to only spend one year in a program, and the enticement of a fantastic price for students on high quality tools, led him to the Diesel Equipment Technician program at CLC. What happened next was worth writing a story about.
My dad just “does what he does,” says Brian’s daughter Tina. Brian is the father of 4 children, one (Tammy) of which with significant cognitive and physical needs who will be homebound her entire life. When Brian isn’t at work or school you can often find him visiting family and friends around town, assisting her every step of the way, keeping a close eye on her wellbeing. Brian doesn’t talk about it, because in his mind he isn’t doing anything special. He’s just “doing what he does.” Brian has literally 40 times the shop experience of his classmates, yet you won’t find him telling anyone that. He comes to class each and every day on time with the work ethic of a veteran employee. He approaches challenges in the classroom with the thought and intention of a man who has spent decades in the industry. He is committed, intentional, and modest. When he knows how to do something, he does it well – no bragging, no complaining, just professional. If a classmate is struggling and he can help, he does, but he doesn’t push or impose.
“He is mentoring his classmates all the time, and he and they don’t even know it,”
say his instructors. “They watch how calm, cool and collected he goes about his business.” A father himself, 39-year old classmate Ben Larson is also a non-traditional student who works alongside Brian every chance he gets. “Brian has taught me a lot, especially about life,” says Ben. “I really appreciate having Brian here.” Although Brian doesn’t say much, he did admit to being worried at first about stepping on the toes of his instructors. “Guys would ask me how to do stuff and I was worried that Paul would be offended. He told me not to worry at all about it,” said Brian. Thankfully, the Diesel Technician program at CLC has fostered not only high quality subject area education, but real-world wholesome guidance and mentoring that today’s students also need to be successful. Jeff and Paul would tell you that every student is different, every student has their own unique challenges, and that every student is at a different stage in professional hard and soft skill development. What’s going on at CLC is pretty special.
At the Central Lakes College Diesel Technician program, students can obtain an AED accredited diploma or degree in just one year. The program covers a diverse array of diesel technician subjects connected to several industry applications. Students leave prepared to be day-one contributors in their industry, but also ready for further in-depth training in a more concentrated area if they or their employer would like. Perhaps just as important, they have had nearly a full year of experience working with consummate professionals who exhibit positive and fun personalities coupled with professional and humble attitudes. The program is high quality, unique, and just the perfect fit for those who want to learn and live in lake country. Extraordinary people, doing extraordinary things.