JE-CO Truck and Trailer
JE-CO’s 20,000-square-foot facility has roughly 50 employees, with 25 techs working two shifts where they can pull in 16 trucks at a time. Schwarz noted that the original group of students they brought on full-time almost two years ago are still there.

Apprentice program at Denver diesel shop a mile-high success

Aug. 31, 2023
Instead of trying to find a needle in haystack, one Colorado shop pushed back on the labor shortage and decided to make their own techs by partnering with a nearby school filled with eager students ready to learn and work in the real world.

Like any shop or dealership, JE-CO Truck and Trailer was having trouble finding and keeping skilled technicians in their bays. The Denver-based diesel maintenance and repair shop is open 24 hours a day Monday through Friday, and services up to 600 trucks per month in the 18,500-sq.ft. facility, which is currently done by about 25 techs. Co-owners Mike Schwarz and Austin White, who took over the shop in 2019, tried all the channels they could think of to recruit techs. Then they went to a Technology & Maintenance Council meeting and heard George Arrants, VP of ASE Education Foundation, talk about the power of apprenticeships and partnering with schools.

Now, they had a new plan: Instead of scouring for skilled techs, they’d make their own.

Meanwhile, just seven miles down the road happens to be a school district that also felt the void in vocational training for the trades and saw an opportunity to do something about it. The Adams 12 Five Star Schools built a multi-million-dollar facility offering training for several trades, including diesel repair.

“They have this beautiful, roughly one-bay shop with some of the best tools and equipment that we've seen—better, in some cases, than what we have in our shop,” Schwarz recalled during Fullbay's August Shop Owner Roundtable discussion, where he was invited to discuss how JE-CO and Adams County school district have worked to together to train students in diesel technology and provide a steady supply of new techs for the shop. The batch has been working at the shop for two years.

“They had a great program, teacher, and curriculum and we started getting involved to the point where we now sponsor the school,” Schwarz said. “The students all wear our uniforms, so they've got JE-CO on their sleeves.”

As part of the partnership, JE-CO employees provide classroom instruction at the high school while some students also complete a two-year apprenticeship program at the shop. JE-CO currently has six apprentices and 25 techs, White said.

A key component of the programs success is Ian Matje, now JE-CO’s director of training and technician development. Before his new role at JE-CO, the former technician was a diesel instructor at the high school and turned wrenches at JE-CO during the summer.

When he started out, he found it a challenge to create a curriculum that would properly prepare students for actual shop life. He’d ask himself how to keep these students up-to-date on industry trends, and more importantly, “Where are these kids going when they’re done?” Matje recalled.

By having a shop as a close resource and partner, the answers to both became clear.

“The point was to bring the industry in—where they can modify my curriculum because they are seeing the changes and the new stuff coming out,” Matje said. “What needs to be fixed every day and thereby affecting what the students were getting.”

That relationship not only allowed them to better equip students with the knowledge needed in the industry, but to pave a pathway for diesel students after high school.

The program was initially only one year, teaching bumper-to-bumper basics. The popularity of the program gave rise to a three-year program where students started learning high-level diagnosis, component tear downs and rebuilds, and failure analysis.

Some high school seniors in the program will complete their core classes for graduation in the morning, and then jet off to JE-CO after 11 a.m. for on-the-job training.  Schwarz noted students can earn around $20/hour. Once they graduate, those who stay at JE-CO would make $27/hour and receive a $4,000 tool allowance as well, Schwarz said.

The most promising students were brought into the shop during the summer and treated like JE-CO family—with the goal in mind of hiring a handful of them full-time after graduation, Schwarz said.

 "They are they are productive and efficient team members when they start and they're worth the money," Schwarz added.

And those former apprentices are still all employed at JE-CO.

Moving forward, JE-CO knows there’s a need to better market this opportunity, reaching even more students who might not know about the many benefits of a career working with their hands in the repair industry.

“Engaging these students, leaving them with literature that says, ‘This is cool. This is what you can (earn). Here’s what the career path is. Here’s our camp that you can join,’” Schwarz said. “There are other paths besides college.”

See also: WrenchWay webinar reflects on tech shortage challenges

Incentivizing success

In general, JE-CO provides techncians with short- and long-term goals, such as earning additional certifications, with the ability to earn up to a $3/hour raise each year, but that's not all. The techs are further incentivized though culture-building and competition. JE-CO hosts monthly lunches and dinners set up like a family meal, and gives weekly and quarterly bonuses to the two top billers.

But nothing tops the annual bonus for the top earner: JE-CO sends that person and a significant other on a vacation to the destination of their choice.

"We didn't think this through exactly," Schwarz said. "We kind of had a number in our head of how much we wanted to pay, but the first person who won it asked to go to Hawaii. And so we sent him to Hawaii."

White noted the morale boost for the team (and going off-season) still made the Hawaiian bonus a sound investment.

Matje, who now leads JE-CO’s overall training program, has also been a good investment, and one who will be crucial to getting all techs up to speed as JE-CO prepares to open another location soon.

About the Author

Cris Beaulieu

Cris Beaulieu is an Associate Editor for Fleet Maintenance magazine. She joined the team after working in local news media. She earned a bachelor’s in journalism at Cleveland State University along with a TV and Radio Broadcast degree at Ohio Media School.