By Mary Lou Jay
After working in a family automotive business for a year, Nick Baughman wanted a change. “I started looking at what the job market was, and I kept seeing openings for diesel techs,” he said. But the diesel mechanic training programs at technical schools and community colleges he investigated cost as much as $40,000 and lasted up to two years — time and money he didn’t want to spend.
Then Baughman saw an ad that changed everything. American Diesel Training Centers (ADTC) was offering a 12-week diesel tech program at a very affordable price. Intrigued, he talked to people who ran the program, toured the training facility in Columbus, Ohio, and signed up.
“It was probably one of the best decisions I ever made,” Baughman said. After finishing the program, he immediately landed a job as a diesel tech working on school buses, and later took a job with the city of Columbus keeping its fire truck engines running.
A New, Fast-Track Approach to Training
ADTC has turned diesel tech training on its ear. Instead of trying to train students in every skill they might ever need, it focuses on 420 tasks identified by the training arm of the American Trucking Association as skills companies want their entry-level technicians to have.
“We built the program starting from what the market wanted,” said Spurlock, one of the ADTC founders and now the CEO.
Companies don’t expect entry-level diesel techs to know how to rebuild an engine or take apart a transmission. They want someone who can do basic diagnostics on electrical circuits, work on brakes, wheels and tires, and handle some driveline, steering, suspension and alignment services.
“When we went out to companies and asked if they’d hire someone with these skills, they would say absolutely yes,” said Spurlock. Once a company has brought a new diesel tech on board, it can provide — and pay for — additional training the techs might need.
“U.S. schools are only producing about 6,000 technicians a year, and they need to be producing 60,000 to 70,000,” said Spurlock.
Filling a Huge Labor Gap
The goal is to help fill the enormous demand for diesel techs in the United States. “What’s driving that shortage is the growth of the industry — everything in this country runs on logistics — and baby boomers retiring in record numbers,” Spurlock said. “U.S. schools are only producing about 6,000 technicians a year, and they need to be producing 60,000 to 70,000.”
One reason schools aren’t turning out enough techs: People aren’t entering their programs. Tuition is expensive, and the $18 to $20 an hour that beginning techs can earn isn’t enough to let them repay student loans. Time is the other issue, said Spurlock. “Most people don’t have a year to spend in a full-time program or two years to spend in a community college program.”
ADTC’s program, by contrast, can get someone a job after just 300 hours of training. That’s less than three months if a student opts for a full-time course. (Part-time options are also available.)
In three years, ADTC has become one of the largest producers of diesel techs in the United States, with more than 400 graduates working in 140 companies. “These are the best-of-the-best-companies — trucking dealership groups, leasing companies, over-the-road trucking companies and independent shops,” said Spurlock.
The program is now available at 15 locations in Ohio, Florida, Texas, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Washington and South Carolina.
Income Share Agreements: Making Tuition Affordable
ADTC uses a tuition plan called an Income Share Agreement (ISA). Although ISAs are fairly new in the United States, they’re used to fund all post-secondary tuition in Scotland and Australia.
An ISA is not a loan, so there’s no interest.
The program costs $11,750, which also covers a starter set of tools that retail for about $4,000. For someone who already has tools, the cost is $10,000.
Students pay nothing up front, but once they graduate from the program and land a job with a certain minimum income, they pay a percentage of that income to the school for a set period of time.
If they make less than $39,999 a year, their payments are $187 a month and that includes the tools. If they make more than $40,000 a year, their payments are $317 a month, including tools.
If their income decreases for some reason, they don’t owe ISA payments until it exceeds the minimum again. Spurlock said a typical ADTC grad pays about 10% of their income for no more than four years. The maximum a graduate will pay is $14,000.
For military veterans who have full GI Bill benefits, ADTC runs special five-week programs in Columbus. Flights to and from Columbus as well as a local hotel room are provided. As soon as a veteran enters the program, ADTC alerts its company partners in the vet’s home city. Some vets are hired even before they start the program.
ADTC looks for attitude and aptitude, said Spurlock. “In our recruiting videos, we say that if you don’t like to show up on time and get your hands dirty, this probably isn’t the right career for you. We are very transparent about the fact that the job is not easy; we actually embrace the toughness of it.”
But for people who are willing to work hard, there are no limits to what they can do once they graduate.
“If you want to become a master technician and make six figures, you can do that,” said Spurlock.
“We view being a diesel mechanic as being a portal into the industry. If you want to become a master technician and make six figures, you can do that. If you decide you want to move into parts or HR or management or even to own your own company, being a diesel technician is the perfect way to enter,” said Spurlock. “Everything happens on the shop floor. There are hundreds of CEOs of trucking companies and senior executives at some of the biggest Fortune 100 companies in the world that started out as mechanics.”
Baughman, who now enjoys a job with good benefits and room to grow, has nothing but positive things to say about ADTC's diesel mechanic school and how it supports its students. “The company’s connections for placing students are top-notch. If you show up on time and do what you’re supposed to do, they will help you 100%.”
His wages even allowed him to buy a new house. “I don’t know if I would have been able to do that without changing career paths.”
Freelance writer Mary Lou Jay has written about construction, trucking and other skilled trades for a variety of publications.