Duplin County’s top three employers are agribusiness companies. These pork, poultry, and turkey processors are looking to hire more than 400 additional truck drivers to move their product to market. There is also a demand for qualified diesel technicians to service and repair their fleet of trucks.
Two Golden LEAF grants totaling $1.7 million have helped James Sprunt Community College (JSCC) support these local employers by creating diesel mechanic and truck driver training programs. The programs are designed to fill industry-identified needs and train individuals with the skills needed to qualify for jobs paying at or above county wages.
“Our local agribusinesses reported little success in finding skilled diesel mechanics to hire that were willing to live and work in Duplin and Sampson counties,” said Jeffery Myers, Department Head for Vocational/Technical Education at James Sprunt Community College. “Having spent significant dollars outside of rural NC counties on truck repairs and maintenance, our local industries contacted us for help in training local people to fill these jobs.”
Students in the JSCC Diesel Mechanics program get practical, hands-on experience working on diesel trucks.
JSCC worked with more than 20 companies to design the diesel mechanic curriculum so that it equipped interested individuals with the skills needed for employment.
Bob Slaughter, Director of Fleet Maintenance at Smithfield Hog Production, was instrumental in forming the plan for the college’s Diesel Mechanic program, said Myers.
“It is hard to attract folks to a rural area,” said Slaughter. “The majority of our workforce is born and raised here, has roots here, and doesn’t want to leave. We had to offer skilled training to our local people.”
Not only did the region need a highly skilled workforce, some employees also needed retraining because the field of diesel mechanics is changing rapidly with new technologies, said Slaughter.
“Our trucks are more computerized and have electronic components that they didn’t have 10 or 20 years ago,” said Slaughter. “We are deficient in mechanics that are exposed to electronics.”
JSCC opened the Diesel Mechanic program this fall enrolling 15 students in its first class where students will be pursuing a diploma in Diesel and Heavy Equipment Technology. The program will be expanded to offer an associate degree in Applied Science in Diesel and Heavy Equipment Technology starting in the fall of 2018. The Diesel Mechanic program also provides existing mechanics continuing education certificates in electrical, hydraulics, preventative maintenance, heating and air condition and brakes and alignment.
“We currently have two Diesel Mechanic students working as interns on second shift while they go to school during the day,” said Slaughter. “We are looking at hiring a third intern. We want to hire young people and train them as well as train existing employees interested in advancing. We are excited to hire graduates, but are also excited for them because diesel mechanics have really good careers.”
Matthew Hardison work nights at Smithfield Hog Production in the preventative maintenance department while going to JSCC during the day to get his diesel mechanic degree.
The Diesel Mechanic program also partners with local high schools in Duplin, Lenoir, and Greene counties through the Diesel Tech Academies.
“The academies will also create a pipeline of new workers,” said Myers. “Our high school students who are interested in pursuing a career in diesel mechanics can begin classes while completing their high school diploma, through the Career and College Promise program.”
Local industry is excited about what the future holds.
“It was a group effort to get the Diesel Mechanic program started in Duplin County,” said Slaughter. “We visited numerous schools that offered programs so we would get an idea of what it took to have a really successful program. Now we have a beautiful modern facility that we are proud of with a great team leading the effort.”
In talking with industry leaders about the skills gap for their mechanics, Myer said he learned that the region also suffered from a severe shortage of truck drivers.
“We are always looking for experienced truck drivers,” said Slaughter. “We like hiring local people because they often grew up on a farm and have some experience working with animals.”
The new truck driver training program at JSCC is set to begin in fall 2017. The college will train more than 100 students to obtain a commercial driver’s license in the first two years and expects to place 70 percent of its licensed drivers in jobs. The truck driver training and diesel mechanic programs will be located at the college’s WestPark site adjacent to the diesel mechanic facility.
Local companies are working directly with the JSCC Diesel Mechanic program to provide trucks, internships, and other expertise in the field as needed.
“These new programs will improve the overall economy in the greater Duplin and surrounding areas by increasing wages, creating new jobs, reducing outsource needs, assisting existing companies, and attracting new industries,” said Myers. “The program will provide our area mechanics with the continuing education and training needed to perform the jobs for local industry which require advanced skill levels and in turn offer them increased pay.”