A new workforce development center at Portland Community College's Rock Creek Campus is expected to help train the next generation of construction equipment experts, through a partnership with Peterson Caterpillar.
On Tuesday, July 26, the college held the grand opening for its Dealer Service Technology Building on the outskirts of Portland near Hillsboro. The facility looks and works like a Caterpillar dealership, providing students with real-world experience and hands-on training of the heavy machinery that powers construction projects.
The new facility features a wide-open factory floor, classrooms, office spaces and locker rooms, as well as hydraulic cleaning systems for maintaining machinery parts and a rear loading dock.
Outside, various engines — from modern designs to older models — are available for students to practice taking them apart and putting them back together again. There's even a sandbox area for students to practice driving and excavating.
Officials say the new program is key for meeting PCC's commitment to filling demand in the labor market — especially in sectors like construction, agriculture and forestry.
"I think the addition is really crucial for meeting those career pathways goals that PCC has," said Adrien Bennings, who took over as PCC president in July. "With the Caterpillar industry providing opportunities in that realm, a lot of people don't realize there's a high demand in that industry."
The new program will also act as an employee pipeline for Caterpillar dealers in the Pacific Northwest. Mace Gjerman, a training manager from Peterson Caterpillar, says that the two-year program through PCC condenses about five years' worth of hands-on training into one program. Students who go through the Caterpillar program at PCC are effectively sponsored by a dealership. They go through about 10 months of training in the classroom, then spend another 11 working at a dealership directly.
The Rock Creek program is the latest in Caterpillar's ThinkBIG Partnership, which offers similar programs at community colleges across the country.
Since 2008, Gjerman said, there have been about 10,000 graduates of the ThinkBIG program nationwide. More than 180 have graduated from the program already out of PCC, most of them going on to work at a dealership in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana or Alaska.
Construction of the $8 million Dealer Service Technology Building was funded by a bond approved by voters in 2017. While construction was slowed down by the pandemic, faculty said that this new technology building will provide an even larger capacity for the ThinkBIG program — and avoid having to share space with the other specialty programs that PCC offers. Prior to the completion of the new facility, the program operated out of a warehouse space shared with the diesel mechanics program.
It's far from the only construction project underway at PCC Rock Creek. Other projects include upgrades and renovations to the campus' chemistry lab, welding shop and library. A new childcare center opened in the fall of 2019, too, providing a space for children to be cared for while their parents study or work on campus.
Bennings said that it's all reflective of PCC's commitment to being a college for people who want high-paying jobs in local industries.
"We are truly the community's college," she said.
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