When it comes to heavy equipment, Joe Kloepper has been around the block once or twice. In fact, his more than 20 years repairing heavy equipment in the U.S. Navy has taken him to Bosnia, Honduras, Haiti, several locations in Europe, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, the South Pacific and Diego Garcia - an island in the Indian Ocean about 1,200 miles from any other land mass.
Now, Kloepper is using his skills to train the future in heavy equipment technicians from the new Applied Science Center located on the Rend Lake College campus. He was hired in May to teach RLC Heavy Equipment Technology (HEQT) students the skills needed to enter the field after graduation. He instructs 24 students in the two-year program and is responsible for a vast inventory of tools and equipment required to provide the training.
“I knew it was going to be tough and it definitely has been,” he said. “But, I’m up for the challenge.”
Kloepper is no stranger to a good challenge. As a construction mechanic in the U.S. Navy Seabees, he was responsible for making sure all the equipment worked, whether it was a chainsaw or a 50-ton crane, he said.
He grew up in central Oregon before answering the challenge to serve his country. After meeting his wife, Vicki, he moved to her hometown, Sesser, where they now reside. They have two sons, three daughters and six grandchildren. She is with the Civil Service and is currently commuting to Scott Air Force Base where she plans to finish her work with the U.S. Government, Kloepper said. He retired in 1999 at the rank of Senior Chief - one rank lower than the highest rank for enlisted personnel - after serving 20 years in the Navy.
His work with 2,200 pieces of equipment from varying manufacturers has prepared him to teach RLC students to become qualified heavy equipment technicians.
“You had to become proficient at working on something you’d never seen before,” he said of his equipment experience in the Seabees. “You worked on so many different types of equipment. You really became a ‘jack of all trades’ technician.
“That’s what I’m bringing to this program,” he added. “I’m teaching the students to work on any type of equipment and not be intimidated by it. The students are going to have the skills needed to repair a wide array of equipment.”
Kloepper is in his first week - the program’s first week - of teaching Heavy Equipment Technology. He said it is going “pretty well.”
His 15 classes and two On-the-Job Training courses consist of traditional college students and nontraditional college students. The age range in the HEQT program is 18 to 49. Six of the 24 enrolled are nontraditional students.
“These are people who have been laid off after working 20 years at a job and are looking for a new career and a way to get back into the workforce,” he said. “All of the students have already proven to be good individuals who, at least, have a positive attitude and want to learn a new trade.”
Just because students in the HEQT program are working with their hands doesn’t mean they don’t have to use their heads, according to Kloepper.
“Students are required to read technical manuals and comprehend what they are telling you,” he explained. “It takes some computer skills because all modern engines have computers and need a computer for diagnostic purposes. You actually have to be pretty smart to work on some of this late model equipment.”
The HEQT program also includes an internship each summer at a dealership with a mentor mechanic. The required internship is an excellent way for students to get their foot in the door at the company.
“It gets them exposed to the market and the market exposed to them,” he said.
But, not every student will walk away from RLC and into a job with Fabick Caterpillar - RLC’s partner in the program - or another company. Kloepper said Fabick is looking for the “cream of the crop.” Once again, he noted the program’s attractive quality of training students on various equipment from many different manufacturers.
“My goal is to have them be just as qualified to walk into a John Deere dealership or a Case dealership and be ready for a job,” he said.
Right now the program is about half coursework and half lab work. His goal is to focus more on hands-on work with equipment in the future. One way that could happen is if students know of heavy equipment owners in the area whose equipment needs repair.
“We’ll work on their equipment so all they have to buy is parts,” he said. “They will get free labor and the students will get good training by working on the equipment.”
However, the equipment may not be worked on in a timely manner if there is no demand for the particular repair required.
“I can’t have students rebuilding an engine in a transmission class,” he said.
Another goal shared by Kloepper and RLC administration is to obtain a certification through the Associated Equipment Distributors, or AED, by the time the HEQT program is in its third year at RLC.
The AED certification is taken into account regarding purchasing equipment used in the program.
A new backhoe purchased by RLC from Fabick is available for training purposes. But, students will not be taking it apart, according to Kloepper. Other equipment needs are being considered based on their current alignment with the HEQT program, their usefulness in instructional and laboratory purposes and whether they fit AED accreditation requirements, according to Dr. Sarah Bond, Applied Sciences Division Chair. They include equipment such as excavators, bulldozers and a skid steer, she added.
A grant through the federal Department of Labor is earmarked for purchases in the HEQT and Industrial Electronics and Maintenance programs and will be allocated through the Fiscal Year 2007 budget, Bond said.
“Rend Lake College welcomes Mr. Kloepper’s years of heavy equipment experience,” she said. “The combination of cutting-edge curriculum, proper training aides and his qualifications will ensure an AED accreditation and a solid program for the future.”
After completing the program, a student will be qualified to begin working with a company for roughly $12 an hour, Kloepper said. The rating increases with experience. A “journeyman” will make about $20 an hour, he explained.
“That’s every technician’s goal ... to get to journeyman and make the bigger money,” he said.
Students who choose to enroll in the HEQT program are required to own about $2,500 in tools they will use in the program. It is “quite a commitment,” Kloepper said. But, it is only a starting set, he added. Typically, a heavy equipment technician has about $10,000 in tools.