‘Hands-on’ work: Cat tackles labor shortage with ThinkBIG training program

By Riley SimpsonNovember 17, 2021

Garrick Dickinson (left) and Dan Hereley (right) work on a Cat C7 engine at the ThinkBIG lab at Illinois Central College (ICC) in East Peoria

It’s hard to discuss anything relating to construction without the looming specter of the industry’s ongoing labor shortage.

Since the Great Recession in the late 2000s, construction has needed more workers, and the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the issue: As of September 2021, there are more than 300,000 job openings in the construction sector, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The industry is fighting back and coming up with solutions:

In addition to those worthy initiatives, one program has seen decades of success with hands-on teaching, and since 1998, it has trained more than 9,000 skilled workers – Caterpillar’s ThinkBIG program.

Sponsored by Cat dealers, the program teaches students how to service Cat equipment using cutting-edge diagnostic and maintenance systems, advanced technologies and high-tech tools.

ThinkBIG combines classroom work and experience-focused learning in the field – via internships at real-life Cat dealerships – and in state-of-the-art labs. And students can earn a nationally accredited Associate in Applied Science degree.

During a tour of the ThinkBIG classroom and workspace located at partner school Illinois Central College (ICC) in East Peoria, CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365 talked with current students and graduates about the program’s success.

Prof. Mark Matthews, program chair at ICC, introduced the partnership between the school and Caterpillar, which is headquartered miles away from campus.

From left to right: training manager Joey Horn, store manager Fred Campbell and HR generalist/recruiter Sarah Markham take part in a panel in the ThinkBIG lab at ICC

In the 23 years since Matthews taught the first class of seven students in 1998, 437 students have graduated from ICC’s ThinkBIG program, which has a graduation rate of 96% (the average ICC Associate of Applied Science graduation rate is just under 18%, according to Matthews).

An even sweeter statistic: 93% of graduates are hired by a Cat equipment dealer.

“When we start somebody [on this path], we want them to finish it,” Matthews said.

That desire is evident in the program’s goals: teach technicians to go to work in two years while they take other classes and earn sponsorships from dealers throughout their training.

And as the partnership enters its fourth decade, the curriculum has changed with the times: Matthews and his staff incorporate new products and technologies into classroom and lab lessons, and the program also nets students AED accreditation.

Caterpillar provides the equipment – the lab is chock-full of engines, and several Cat machines occupy the ICC parking lot – that the students use to train.

Over the years, Matthews has preached a hands-on approach to learning, and two current students talked about how important that was for their growth.

Dylan Michel, who said he comes from a family of farmers, joined ThinkBIG after several friends from high school went through the program.

Before the program, he said he found it hard to sit through classroom-based school; training to be a Cat technician has allowed him to enjoy working with his hands and split time between the classroom and experiencing working for a real-life dealer with his internship at Altorfer Cat, a key program partner.

Xavier Gingerevans, now a field technician with Altorfer Cat, graduated from ICC and the ThinkBIG program in 2018 and said the “live environment” was important to his success.

Originally, Gingerevans’ father suggested the ThinkBIG program to his son, who took the opportunity. He said he “looked at what he enjoyed doing,” which was working with his hands.

Technician work came quickly to Gingerevans, who competed in Caterpillar’s Dealer Top Apprentice Program in March 2019, finished with the highest score in all three sectional events and took home the overall trophy.

“It’s an opportunity to be part of something larger and see the difference [you can make],” Gingerevans said.

Another ThinkBIG graduate, Joey Horn, is a training manager at Altorfer Cat who also praised the program’s effect on his life, as well as how it’s allowed him to continue training students since finishing the program 17 years ago.

“ThinkBIG set the stage for me, and now I can pass my knowledge on,” Horn said.

Tyler Labarre (left) and Ethan Whitaker (right) work on a Cat C11 engine

Horn is also passing the torch in a very personal way – his son was applying for the ThinkBIG program at ICC the same day as the classroom and lab tour.

Although most students are right out of high school or in their early 20s, Matthews said ThinkBIG has trained people in their 30s and 40s, even as old as 49.

But age doesn’t matter as much as a student’s willingness to learn the equipment.

“As long as it’s a fit, it works for us,” Matthews said.

Even with ThinkBIG infusing thousands of technicians over the past 23 years across its 12 North American programs – and there were 224 graduates from North America in 2021 – there’s still a labor shortage in the technician subsector.

According to Caterpillar, there are currently more than 1,500 openings at its U.S. dealers, and the industry as a whole needs more than 30,000 technicians per year globally.

Sarah Markham, human resources generalist and recruiter for Altorfer Cat, which employs Gingerevans and Horn, said in 2017 her company set the goal of growing its business 100% over 10 years – and the need for technicians makes up 12% of that goal, a formidable bench mark. One way Altorfer works toward its goal is by recognizing its younger workers’ need to feel like there’s meaning behind what they do.

“The younger generation wants to be included and feel rewarded,” Markham said. “Back in the day, you might not have needed to say ‘good job’ or give a slap on the back, but for today’s young workers it’s important to encourage them. The more we encourage, the more they will want to grow and succeed.”

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