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TWIN FALLS — Whether they’re taking over the family business or preparing to start a family, College of Southern Idaho students in the ag diesel program expect to find long-term employment after graduating.

“I think it’s time for me to lay down some roots,” said Joe Gardner, who will soon be a father. “That’s why I wanted this program, honestly.”

Gardner has been moving around for the last several years after spending five years on active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps. Now, he’s planning on getting an associate degree through CSI’s newest concentration in its diesel technology program.

It’s a certification that local businesses say will provide a much-needed skill set in south-central Idaho.

“The equipment is getting so technical it requires a lot of technical expertise and the ability to troubleshoot hydraulic and electrical systems,” Twin Falls Tractor & Implement Co. Parts Manager Gary Brightwell said.

Burks Tractor has hired several CSI graduates from the diesel technology program in the past five to 10 years, Service Manager Chris Brown said. But since the program has been mostly focused on trucks, the graduates had to learn about ag equipment almost from scratch.

“They didn’t have a good base of hydraulics and electrics,” Brown said.

Years ago, CSI’s diesel technology program was more centered on agriculture, Brightwell said, but it eventually gravitated toward over-the-road trucks. He believes the new program will bring an opportunity to train a local work force.

“We feel like it’s going to be very beneficial,” said Tyson Wilkins, a technician at Stotz Equipment in Twin Falls.

And it can be a lucrative career, Brown said.

“If they’re good at it and they stick with it, they can make a career out of it,” he said.

Burks Tractor pays $15 or more starting wage, Brown said, and within the first year or so that number may go up to $20 or more.

John Deere pays between $18 and $25 an hour for certified technicians starting out, Wilkins said.

Wilkins remembers that when he came into the job with a certification in diesel trucks only, not farm equipment, “it was a hard adjustment because we learned only about semis.”

Brightwell, Wilkins and Brown are on the advisory committee that recommended bringing in the ag diesel concentration to CSI’s diesel technology program.

Increased cap size

Over the last few years, CSI has needed to increase the cap size on its diesel program, at about 18, CSI Trade and Industry Department Chair David Wyatt said.

“We are expanding our current diesel technology program to create a separate pathway for ag concentration,” he said.

The new pathway increases the cap to about 35.

Thanks to additional funding to address skills gaps through career and technical education, CSI put about $270,000 to work on bids for farm equipment it didn’t already own, Wyatt said. The college also hired a full-time instructor and lab assistant.

“I’ve been mechanic-ing for about 35 years now,” said Rodney Higgins, diesel technology instructor with the ag concentration.

Higgins is new to the teaching field, but has worked on trucks, mining and farm equipment in Washington, Nevada, Wyoming, New Mexico, Montana and Oregon.

This semester, he’s seen 11 students in his afternoon class at CSI, many of whom will go into the ag concentration.

“This semester, most of the students coming in are pretty much beginners,” Higgins said.

The fall semester covers the basics, following the diesel truck curriculum, and spring semester will go into the specifics of agriculture equipment, he said.

The program tuition is $130 per credit and will cost students an estimated $8,000 for two years, Wyatt said. Students can choose to attend one year for an intermediate certification, or two years for an Associate of Applied Science.

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CSI has set up a fund to track program expenses.

“We’re hoping this is going to be a permanent addition to the college,” Wyatt said.

Career building

On Thursday, students in Higgins’ class got an introduction to tools to be used in precise measuring. Mike Burnett, 23, said he works at Gooding Transport and wanted to get certification with an understanding of trucks and agriculture equipment.

“It’s been a family business,” Burnett said. “I’m hoping to take it over when I graduate.”

Jack Northrup, 19, also wants to share his skills with his family. The family farm he worked on in Arco used to use gas tractors.

“When we got a diesel, nobody knew what to do with it,” Northrup said.

Other students wanted to earn a certification to expand their career options.

Micah Stockberger, 22, said he’s been driving trucks for agriculture transportation for three years, but he wants a job where he can come home every night.

“I’ve always had a passion for diesels,” Stockberger said.

Gardner, who works at Douglas Tires Pros in Jerome, is working full-time while attending school five-hours-a-day to get an associate degree. He believes that should he change jobs in the future, the agriculture industry is a viable option.

“I know a lot of farmers around, and they’re always looking for a good ag technician,” he said.

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