SALT LAKE CITY — With unemployment in Utah below 3%, a number of industries are struggling to find enough qualified workers to fill positions in high-paying technical fields. Now, some Utah companies are courting soon-to-be high school graduates with the lure of good pay and benefits without the cost of a college degree.
Leaders from the heavy equipment industry hosted an event Friday for students from several Wasatch Front school districts geared toward generating interest in future jobs. The industry is partnering with Salt Lake Community College at its Westpointe campus on the west side of Salt Lake City to create curriculum to teach students skills that can help them get hired as heavy equipment technicians trained to work on machines and vehicles used in construction, farming and railway transport, among other sectors.
“We want the students here to see the program, which is accredited by our foundation, to give the students they need to become qualified entry-level technicians,” explained Martin McCormack, associate director of development and workforce for the Associated Equipment Distributors Foundation.
He noted that over the next five years, the heavy equipment industry will need about 20,000 new workers nationwide to fill positions that will become available as the current workforce retires and the industry grows.
McCormack attributed the current shortage in part to students choosing to attend four-year colleges rather than pursue technical, “blue collar” careers. Friday’s event was organized to gain the interest of students who may be in search of a technical career with long-term stability, and to show others who may have been unaware of the industry the benefits of its career opportunities, he said.
“They get a firsthand view of what heavy equipment looks like, learn about some of the skills they need to excel and the work ethic that’s needed to be successful,” McCormack said.
Depending on the employers, entry level technicians can earn $35,000 to $40,000 upon completion of the program, with many employers offering to pay off student debt as a perk, he noted.
McCormack added that it is not uncommon for technicians to earn six-figure pay within five years of entering the industry, depending upon the area of the country.
The event attracted approximately 350 students from various school districts, including some who expressed interest in the program.
“When I found out this was an opportunity to go into heavy (equipment) mechanics, I thought this was pretty cool,” said China Jones, 17, a senior at Brighton High School in Cottonwood Heights. Having previously been interested in auto mechanics, she said this new program could definitely be a career path to consider.
Others already had an idea of the possibilities the heavy equipment industry offers. Caden Bringhurst, 17, a senior at Corner Canyon High School in Draper, learned of the industry through his father’s excavating company where he works part-time as a mechanic.
“It’s just a cool field to go into,” he said. “I like working with my hands so this is something I would be interested in because you could get to know it and have fun (on the job).”
Fellow Corner Canyon senior Bodie Hardy, 17, said he had not really considered the industry prior to attending the event. However, learning more has given him reason to consider the SLCC program upon graduation next year.
“I think it would be something that interests me,” he said. “It has good pay and you get to work with machinery. It’s a great field to go into and people should consider it more.”
With the industry facing a major worker shortage, companies are adamant about building a pipeline of qualified new talent to fill those positions in the coming years. Dan Johnson, component rebuild supervisor with Wheeler Machinery, said today’s industry has changed drastically from years past, with better working conditions and great benefits.
“It’s an excellent career and it’s really good money. You can get right into it (soon after high school),” he said. “My top mechanics are making over six figures and they stay clean. Our shop — you could eat off the floor.”