Cody Gutknecht spent evenings and weekends during high school and college making fries and shakes at McDonald’s. But he always hoped for something more for himself. 

With the help of the training he got in diesel mechanics at Missoula College (at the University of Montana), Gutknecht landed a job earlier this year, first as an intern and currently as a mechanical technician, for Halliburton in the oilfields in Williston, N.D. 

“I feel the training I got my first year in school showed Halliburton that I was a good candidate to come back full-time,” Gutknecht says. “The best skill school taught us is to have a good work ethic and always be willing to learn new things.” 

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Guiding students

Gutknecht is just one of the students whom Program Director Jim Headlee has taught in his more than 20 years in the diesel mechanics program at Missoula. And he is proud to be at the helm, instructing students toward a two-year Associate of Applied Science degree (with a four-year bachelor’s option) in diesel equipment technology. 

The coursework prepares students to repair over-the-road and off-road trucks, heavy equipment and stationary-type equipment, some of which is used in the gas, oil and mining industries. Study specifics include braking, suspension and fuel systems; electrical theory; engine theory, diagnosis and rebuilding; hydraulics and more. 

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“Over 50 percent of the work is hands on,” says Headlee, who says the majority of the program’s students, about 95 percent, are male, and many are non-traditional, or older adult, students looking to re-enter the job market or switch careers. 

The rising oil industry boom has increased the program’s visibility, he says. “The oil boom has certainly helped. There is a lot of publicity about the high-paying jobs. Some of those are diesel mechanic jobs.” 

Headlee says his program graduates about 75 percent of their students and has a very small dropout rate. When a student does drop out, he says, it is often because of a lack of basic skills, like reading. 

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“We have a lot of people coming to school that are not up to speed,” he says. A GED or high school degree is required to enter the program, but some students mistakenly believe they don’t need math, reading and writing skills to succeed in a technical career. If there is one message Headlee wants to make clear to potential students, it’s don’t ignore the reading, writing and math. 

Test the waters

Headlee is pushing for testing candidates for their reading skills prior to entering the program. And the program also includes training in technical writing, an essential aspect in careers working with complicated machinery and detailed operating rules. He says the college does offer study skills courses and has tutors available for those needing extra help. 

The two-year degree has afforded many, like Gutknecht, the building blocks to go on in careers in the oilfields, coal mines, railroads, heavy equipment dealers (like nearby Western States Caterpillar) or truck repair shops, among others. Headlee says there are plentiful options with this training; however, he notes that most of their students opt for the two-year associate’s degree and leave for well-paying jobs, rather pursuing the four-year Bachelor of Science degree.

By their second year, he says, many students begin looking more closely at available jobs, with about 20 percent of their students going the oilfield route. That’s not surprising, given Montana and neighboring North Dakota’s reputations in the industry. “We give the students a good foundation,” he adds. 

With a waiting list of one-to-two years for the program, Headlee sees demand for the diesel mechanics degrees staying strong, especially with Baby Boomers retiring rapidly, with some dealerships losing longtime technicians and energy companies seeking younger talent. 

“Unfortunately, longtime employees take a lot of knowledge with them,” he says, noting the added importance for qualified candidates to take their places. 

Still, the industries served by those skilled in diesel mechanics are often housed on dangerous and costly job sites. “Time is money,” Headless says, so having the next generation of skilled professionals is essential. 

And Headlee is proud to be part of it, he says, recalling a student who came into the program living in his truck and graduated to work in the coalmines for Wyoming Machinery (a Caterpillar dealership). 

“We have our successes,” he beams. 

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