This content was published: September 10, 2018. Phone numbers, email addresses, and other information may have changed.
ThinkBIG partnership with Caterpillar setting high standards across the world
Photos and Story by James Hill
Portland Community College alum and Southridge High School graduate Ryan Walker made history on the international stage.
This spring in Melbourne, Australia, Walker aced Caterpillar Inc.’s Skills Olympics, a hands-on diagnostics test performed during a grueling five-day diesel service competition called Top Apprentice. Such a performance was a first for the competition, now in its 39th year, and Walker nabbed the top prize.
Walker, who lives in Tri-Cities and works for Western States Equipment as a field technician, graduated three years ago with an associate degree from the ThinkBIG Program, a partnership between PCC and regional Cat Dealers. The program is housed at PCC’s Rock Creek Campus (17705 N.W. Springville Road).
“We do have the best program here with ThinkBIG,” said Walker, who added that the on-the-job training was invaluable because he could apply what he learned in the classroom to the real world. “We have so much support here, which really made it possible for me to succeed. I just took advantage of every opportunity that was made to me. I can’t thank all of instructors enough. It’s pretty cool.”
Since 2005, ThinkBIG has provided students with critical on-the-job training in diesel technology education, like engine fundamentals, machine hydraulics, fuel and electrical systems, transmissions and torque converters. While participating in the program, students like Walker work in internships at participating Cat Dealers, which include NC Machinery in Anchorage and Seattle, Tractor and Equipment Co. in Billings, Mont., Western States in Boise, Idaho, and Peterson Machinery Co. in Eugene and Portland.
“What Ryan has been able to do is show us what world class is,” said Mike Miller, division manager for Caterpillar Global Dealer Learning. “After 39 years of hosting this competition, we’ve never had a person get a perfect score in every category across the board. Ryan was the first.”
ThinkBIG is critical in developing trained technicians for the company. The program compresses into two years what typically requires six to seven years of on-the-job experience. When they graduate, they have the technical skills and onsite experience to stand out to Cat Dealers looking to hire for permanent positions.
“Ryan did a fantastic job,” said PCC President Mark Mitsui of the achievement. “He really raised the bar, not only for our program but for the entire sector of diesel students. This is a great program. The skills they learn are incredibly valuable, both for Caterpillar and for the country because the company builds so much throughout the U.S.”
Miller recognized the program’s faculty and emphasized that they are the reason why ThinkBIG has been so successful.
“ThinkBIG is the pipeline for us to get to where we need to go in service tech skills,” Miller said. “When it all comes together like this, it derives great results. The passion of the instructors take it to a whole new level. Their commitment and how they work with the students generates excellent results. Ryan is a great example.”
For PCC, career technical education programs like ThinkBIG are crucial for the future. The college and its partners are gearing up for the 2019-21 community college budget ask that will, in part, tackle the glaring skills shortage industry is facing. About $70 million of the proposed $787 million budget proposal to the state legislature would add capacity in CTE programs around Oregon, doubling the annual graduates by 7,900 per year.
“We are requesting a significant increase in funding for career technical programs in the state,” Mitsui said. “We want to double the number of graduates in high-wage, high-demand fields like this to help meet the skills gap in the state of Oregon. I’ve pointed to the ThinkBIG Program as a great example of what community colleges and companies like Caterpillar can do together.”