Leaders of Oregon’s largest college and officials with a global manufacturer of construction equipment celebrated a new facility Tuesday, built with the financial backing of Portland-area voters.
The new Dealer Service Technology Building at Portland Community College’s Rock Creek Campus near Hillsboro will serve students studying to become technicians. The facility is focused on teaching students to employ Caterpillar equipment and vehicles used for sectors such as agriculture and construction.
The two-year program, also known as ThinkBIG, started in 2006 and is a partnership between PCC and Caterpillar, Inc. dealerships across the Northwest.
Adrien Bennings was on hand as PCC’s new president, after stepping into her position earlier this month. She said that the new facility will serve students, faculty and the region’s workforce for years to come.
“For PCC, career technical education programs like ThinkBIG are critical to tackling the glaring skills shortage that industry faces,” Bennings said.
Across Oregon, industries are stretched for workers, with state officials recently announcing that employers have had at least 100,000 openings for more than a year. On the flip side, community colleges are struggling with enrollment declines. PCC saw a roughly 23% decrease in students last fall compared to before the pandemic.
Mace Gjerman, an employee of the Caterpillar equipment dealer Peterson Cat, said at the event Tuesday that the ThinkBIG program is a key part of developing the industry’s workforce.
“ThinkBIG is absolutely critical for developing technicians for Caterpillar dealers, and Caterpillar dealer technicians are critical for Caterpillar’s business,” Gjerman said.
Bennings said partnerships with industries and businesses like Caterpillar are mutually beneficial for the college and the wider community.
“As we seek to address creative and out-of-the-box ways to address enrollment, but at the same time meet community and workforce and economic needs — I think this does just that,” Bennings told OPB.
Expanding programs like ThinkBIG will help students land jobs in high-wage, high-demand fields and meet Oregon’s skills gap, Bennings said Tuesday.
“ThinkBIG is a stellar example of what community colleges and business partners, companies like Caterpillar, can do together — we are truly the community’s college,” she said.
As part of the ThinkBIG program, along with working in PCC’s new building, students are placed in internships at Caterpillar dealerships in cities including Portland, Seattle, Boise and Anchorage.
The new building, funded out of a $185 million bond passed in 2017, will mimic the operation of an actual Caterpillar dealership in order to give students an authentic training experience, according to PCC.
PCC is one of 10 colleges in the U.S. with a ThinkBIG program. With the new Dealer Service Technology Building, it will be just the second ThinkBIG electric power generation technician training school in the country, according to the college.
Gjerman said the two-year program equates to five to seven years of experience for normal technician development.
Bennings hopes the new facility will help raise awareness of the needs in different industry sectors, and potentially help increase opportunities for PCC to have more partnerships like the one with Caterpillar.
“When you talk about partnerships in the future of workforce and CTE, I think that landscape is changing, and for us as a community college, we have to shift our model from the traditional way of doing things and knowing that it’s not just the general education or specific degree programs, but we offer hands-on, workforce-related skills that are very relevant,” Bennings said.