Nathan Bengen and Chris Pruneda have always liked working on machinery.
They’re students in the John Deere technology program at Walla Walla Community College, currently spending three months interning at RDO Equipment Co. in Pasco.
They hope to become full-time technicians after graduating in August.
Bengen grew up on a farm in Pasco, Wash.
“Like the equipment, like to work on it,” he said. “Wanted to learn the right way to work on it, versus the farmer way to work on stuff, I guess.”
Pruneda doesn’t have a farming background.
“But I’ve always had the desire to see how things work, (a) take it apart, put it back together kind of thing,” he said.
The program offers students a two-year degree, a paid internship and a guaranteed job after graduation, said Curt Brown, tech program manager for John Deere in the western region, based in Olathe, Kan.
Bengen said his options are open, whether he decides to return to the farm or work at the dealership.
“Obviously, you learn at school, but being able to put your hands on what you learn back here is probably the most valuable part,” Bengen said.
Roughly 35 students are enrolled in the two-year program, Andy Winnett, program director at Walla Walla Community College, said.
John Deere has 16 programs in the United States, Brown said.
Students must have a high school diploma or equivalent.
Students take classes at the college during the first, third, fifth and seventh quarters; the second, fourth and sixth quarters involve internships at a dealership.
Every student is supported, sponsored or partnered with a dealership before coming to the community college. Some are referred by dealers. Others reach out to Winnett, who refers them to a dealer.
John Deere offers a link on the company website.
Ideally, students have some sort of mechanical background, Winnett said.
“I think, inherently, everybody that comes here has got to have a desire to fix things,” he said. “If you don’t like to fix things, you’re going to be frustrated because that’s why we’re here.”
The course offers training on the latest equipment, Winnett said. Products range from a year old to 40 years old — the current machinery that shows up in dealerships.
Common calls from farmers can include a dashboard warning, an electrical or hydraulic problem, “or the proverbial funny noise,” Winnett said.
In-state students pay roughly $14,000 in tuition and fees for seven quarters, and out-of-state students pay roughly $16,000. Most dealers have some sort of reimbursement program, Winnett said.
Graduates are certified as dealers for five years.
The demand for technicians isn’t going away, Winnett said, citing future retirements or departures as people move to new locations.
“When ag was booming, there was lots of product of every color sold,” Winnett said. “That product line is now getting some hours on it, where it might have a little bit more of a need for tech service work.”
The program benefits the dealerships.
“It’s a lot easier to grow your technician than it is to find a technician,” Joe Collins, service adviser for RDO Equipment Co., said.
More than half of the technicians working in the shop went through the program, Collins said. Many employees who have since risen to the management level are also graduates.
“During harvesting and planting, (farmers are) able to get a guaranteed, top-qualified technician (who can) deliver a quality service job to our John Deere machinery,” said Brown, the tech program manager in Kansas.
The program is considered an industry standard for technician education, Brown said.
The company is constantly evaluating ways to improve the course, including considering coming technologies, Brown said.
John Deere offers parts, special tools, equipment and training for its instructors, helping them keep current on problems and solutions, Winnett said.
Instructor Cullen Colston graduated from the program in 1996. He worked for a dealership for five years, then joined the community college.
Colston hopes to give students “as much as we can cram down their throat,” during 10-week quarters, he said.
“Pretty much anything I know, I’m trying to give to them,” he said. “They’ve had a lot of theory, now they just need a little time and experience under their belt to pick up on the rest of it.”
Instructor Zac Knappenberger graduated in 2003 and worked for area dealerships before returning to teach in the program.
He hopes to give students a better than basic idea of what they’re doing, and understand the needs of both their employers and the farmer.
“Be prepared for a lot of hard work and a lot of problem solving,” he said. “Comprehension of what you’re reading is probably the biggest skill you need coming into this program.”
For Winnett, it’s most rewarding when a question arises at a dealership, and a “rookie” student or graduate has the answer.
“When I started, I didn’t know very many technical terms,” Pruneda said. “Now, I hear these guys talking in the shop, ‘This is what’s wrong with the tractor.’ (I say) ‘Hey, I learned about that. I understand what you mean, I know what those parts are. I get how it works.’”