John Haine has been watching the shrinking ranks of people skilled in maintaining and repairing complex high-tech engines and equipment. Now the general manager of the White Bear Lake branch of Cummins Inc., a 100-year-old global power systems company based in Indiana, is gearing up to address that gap. In February, his company announced a Minnesota partnership with Northeast Metro 916 Career and Technical Center. The Cummins School-to-Work Program will train qualified high school students with the intention of launching them into high-paying jobs in the diesel field. Haine explains why such programs make increasingly good sense for companies like his and for nontraditional students.

Q: Your partnership with Northeast Metro School District 916 sounds like a win-win. You get well-trained young employees. Young people find good career opportunities.

A: I’m really proud of this program. Cummins gets in early with these talented students and these students are going to learn from the best technicians in the industry. It creates a talent pipeline for us and offers students another career path, as not everyone is necessarily a good fit, nor wants, a four-year college degree. Nontraditional students see this opportunity and it ignites them.


Q: Talk a little bit about the skills gap you’re trying to address.

A: Things are changing and we’re trying to stay true to our core business without being a dinosaur. Over the next decade, there will be a significant need for people who are skilled in the maintenance and repair of high-tech engines and equipment. But the shift is so much bigger than diesel. We’re asking, how do we perform diagnostic tests? What new mechanical and technical skills are required now? We’ve invested in new power businesses including hydrogen fuel technology. We currently have electric school buses and have an electric transit bus coming out this year.


Q: Why are you zeroing in on these students?

A: They’re already interested in technical trades. This relationship allows us to introduce, educate and provide them with the real-world skills that are required to give them a competitive advantage. More and more, parents are saying to their kids, it’s OK to tell people that you are going right to work after high school. It’s as highly regarded as going to college to do career exploration.


Q: Cummins is global. Why is Minnesota one of the first states to launch this school-to-work program?

A: Minnesota is one of our biggest locations, with branches in White Bear Lake, Duluth, Shoreview and Fridley. We’ve got technicians working on engines and generators, a parts department, as well as executive leaders here.


Q: How does your application process work? Can any interested 916 student join your program?

A: They have to be high school juniors or seniors. This program is a complement to what they already have going on at school. Students must meet criteria for their GPA and code of conduct. We’ll select the best candidates, who will assist our technicians during those two years up to 19 hours a week. They can work fulltime in the summer between their junior and senior years. They get paid all the way through and learn as they go.


Q: It sounds competitive.

A: (Laughs) We couldn’t deal with 40 high school students running around our shop. We’re encouraging them to put their best foot forward with their resume and recommendations. It’s the same process as applying for a job. This is relationship building with a potential future employer.


Q: How much will they earn? And what is a competitive salary in this field?

A: The hourly rate for students is being finalized now but will be competitive for our market. Trained technicians can make up to $40 an hour.


Q: Does your effort include aggressive recruitment of girls and students of color?

A: Absolutely. Diversity and inclusion is a Cummins core value. We know that girls and people of color often are not exposed to this field. We have a few women in our technician ranks and we try to make that visible. It’s really tough to convince girls. We’ve learned that by the time high school comes for girls, it’s often too late. You have to get to them in elementary school and middle school and say this isn’t just for boys. We need to get there early enough.


Q: Once you recruit women, how do you keep them?

A: We’ve striven to make our facilities more friendly for women. We offer six-to-12 weeks of paid leave for the birth of a child for mothers and fathers. We have nursing mothers rooms and separate locker rooms. In many of our facilities, there previously wasn’t a women’s locker room at all. It’s the big things and small things, like having appropriate steel toe shoe covers for women’s feet.


Q: Would you consider recruiting and training people over age 50 who have lost jobs or are looking for a career change?

A: It’s a really good point. There’s not a program directed specifically toward that group but if someone has an interest in our field I’d encourage them to apply for our apprenticeship program. Someone who knows how to fix stuff would be ideal for our program.