CA Caterpillar Dealers Sponsor "Think Big" Apprenticeship Program

Sept. 28, 2010



California CAT dealers sponsor CAT's Think Big project ...

Holt of California (Sacramento/Stockton area), Quinn Company (Central Valley), Hawthorne Machinery Co. (San Diego area), Peterson Tractor Co (San Francisco Bay area and Northern California), Johnson Machinery Co. (Riverside area), and Shepherd Machinery (Los Angeles area).

Let's face it; not everyone is going to become a white collar worker with a four-year college degree. But many high schools have acted as if that is the be-all and end-all goal of the educational system. Granted, it's a computer-literate world we live in, but tossing out "vocational track" curricula — for the most part — leaves a large segment of students being short-changed.

Research shows that high schools are starting to rethink the trend. In a U.S. News and World Report article (Oct. 9, 2000), the 17,000 U.S. high schools were said to in many ways meet student's needs, yet in many ways not:

"Nothing turns kids off more than studies that seem dull and irrelevant, so curriculum reform is crucial ... students seem to learn best when expectations are high and they're challenged to think — and when the connections are clear between their studies and the real world ..."

The article continued:

"(One high school's) turnaround came after a decision to infuse vocational courses with high-level math and science and to make outside internships part of the program."

To make outside internships part of an educational program is exactly what six California Caterpillar dealerships began to do, five years ago. These dealers aligned with San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, California, to allow students (high school graduates or equivalent) to earn an Associate of Science degree, while working and learning how to repair and maintain Caterpillar equipment at the journeyman level. They call the program, "Think Big."

Max Jones, director of Training Development at Holt California, in Sacramento, said, "Each dealer may recruit from high school, advertising, military, career fairs, and the workforce, including among CAT dealership employees." But with only 32 slots available each year, there may be three times that many applicants to choose from.

What does a local dealer look for in a "Think Big" recruit?

"Drive, motivation, passion, drive to do this kind of work," Jones said. "It's not for everybody; you do get your hands dirty, and it's hard work. But if a person has a good work ethic and a desire to do their homework, they will succeed." And make a good living.

How it works

Think Big is a four-year apprenticeship program, fully accredited and sanctioned by the state of California. There are 13 technical classes and one welding class, plus eight state-mandated general education classes.

The local dealer places new hires/recruits in the eight-week alternating programs. They then come back to their local dealership and work for eight or 10 weeks, then go back to school for eight weeks, etc. At the end of two years, they have earned both an Associate of Science (AS) degree and a Certificate of Caterpillar Service Technology. They continue working in the dealership as a paid intern another two or so years, finish their apprenticeship, and are then certified as journeymen.

New Equipment

At San Joaquin Community College, CAT students have 20,000 square feet of area to work in. The local dealers supply latest model CAT machines for the students to work on, test and evaluate. New CAT equipment will represent the full line — wheel loaders, backhoes, scrapers, truck-type tractors, excavators, etc. According to Jones, this is in contrast to some trade schools — not related to CAT — that rely heavily on donated, old machines. Jones said a student might graduate under that kind of arrangement yet be fairly clueless as to how to maintain the latest high-tech equipment.

Albert Sanchez, vice president of operations, Johnson Machinery, Riverside, also a board member for Think Big, said that each CAT dealer may send a few recruits each school year, but the collective total can only be 32. The cost for the dealer, then, per student may range from about $10,000 to $13,500, according to Sanchez. This would include providing the necessary working tools during the apprenticeship. It may even mean providing housing.


The students may, for example, learn transmissions for eight weeks in school, then return to the dealership, where they are going to be working strictly on transmissions on machines in the shop — putting into practice what they have just been trained to do — training in the Iron at school, practical, hands-on experience afterwards.

When the students are actually working, they are paid as interns. However, when they are in the school setting, they are not paid, but their employee benefits package does continue, plus the tuition for their schooling is paid for by the CAT dealer that sponsors them. According to Jones, some aspects of the program may be negotiable, depending on the student and the needs of each dealership.


Jones said 80 percent to 90 percent of the people who begin the Think Big program stick with it to graduation. He said it normally takes eight to 10 years to make field-level expertise, but, "We have graduates making it in just three to four years, having graduated from Think Big." Since the program was begun nearly six years ago, three classes have graduated. Of the first two classes, most of the graduates are already in the field-level position, he noted.

"It's the fastest track to get into the dealership and become a journeyman-level, industry-recognized technician," he said.

Sanchez added, "Our goal is to develop top field personnel, future service managers and people who will enter other positions within the company."

Editor's Note: more info on CAT's Think Big program curriculum may be found at: