Checking out the possibilities

Minnesota West in Canby puts on a great show every year for the community to see what is new in the technical industry. Experts say the job outlook is promising.

Photo by Jenny Kirk Longtime event supporter and Canby resident Jody Olson demonstrates that you’re never too old to learn new things as she figures out how to tighten lug nuts on a tire as power sports instructor Jason Bohl from the Jackson campus looks on during Minnesota West Community and Technical College’s 22nd annual Diesel Xtravaganza recently on the Canby campus.


In a lot of ways, Wabasso graduate Tanner Johnson is the ideal poster boy for the diesel program at Minnesota West Community and Technical School in Canby.

Johnson is a natural at taking equipment apart and putting it back together. He’s enjoyed working with his hands for as long as he can remember.

“He was 5 years old and covered in oil from head to toe while tearing apart a diesel pickup,” said Dave Johnson, Tanner’s dad. “So he’s been around it for a long time.”

In a few weeks, the second-year Minnesota West student will graduate with a diesel technology degree.

“I love it,” Johnson said of the program. “I’m definitely ready to go out and use my skills that I’ve learned. They’ve taught me a lot.”

The well-established diesel program was one of four programs highlighted recently at Minnesota West’s 22nd annual Diesel Xtravaganza at the Canby campus.

“The Xtravaganza was started back in ’97,” diesel instructor Mike DeVries said. “It’s just blossomed over the years and become a really big thing. You can look around and see all the people here. It’s just amazing how much support we get from the local communities.”

DeVries said area dealerships are especially willing to showcase some of their equipment because of the current industry outlook.

“There’s so much demand in our industry for mechanics right now,” he said. “The wage for mechanic right now is just crawling up and up, too, as is anything in the technical industry right now — plumbers, electricians, wind and anything like that. The payout for a job in the future is just excellent.”

DeVries estimated that a Minnesota West student coming out of the two-year diesel program is likely to make between $40,000 and $50,000. Oftentimes, that wage doubles with a decade of experience.

“We have technicians out in the industry now, after about 10 years of working in the field, they’re making six figures,” DeVries said. “I just heard of a guy who was paid to move out to Montana and they’re paying him $125,000. They needed him really bad. So if you’re good at what you do — if you pay attention here at school and listen to your instructors — you can potentially make some pretty good money.”

DeVries spent 20 years working in the industry at RDO Equipment in Marshall before becoming an instructor nearly three years ago.

“We teach anything diesel powered,” he said. “We are on the cutting edge of technology. We teach all the new stuff here. We also do a really thorough job here of teaching basics. You have to have the basics before you can move ahead.”

DeVries is a graduate of the diesel program, as is instructor Peter Girard, who has spent 37 years teaching diesel technology courses at Minnesota West.

“The diesel program was started in 1965,” said Girard, who grew up in the Marshall area. “I went through the diesel program here and then worked in industry for five years. Then I got a chance to teach. I thought I could do that for five years, but here I am.”

Girard said he doesn’t regret the decision and has been a strong advocate for the program because he’s seen countless students graduate and then flourish in the industry.

“A lot of the students come because of their ag background,” he said. “They come off of the farm, with either the intention of going back to the farm or they just like working with their hands, and they come for the two years. Even those that planned on going back to the farm and farming oftentimes end up looking at it and realizing they can make really good money within five to 10 years.”

Girard added that students who come out of the Minnesota West diesel program find jobs in various places.

“I’ve got students in the industry who become service managers, store managers or start their own business,” Girard said. “I’ve also got probably upwards of 10-15 former graduates that are teachers throughout the United States, teaching diesel mechanics. It takes a special person who loves working with their hands and can just naturally grab something and fix it.”

Most years, Girard said there are about 40 diesel mechanic students, but that it can sometimes range between 30 and 50. The students themselves started the Xtravaganza.

“They’re the ones that line up all the machinery to come in, they do the Whopper feed and they have a raffle going on,” he said. “As of (March 20), they had sold over $6,000 worth of raffle tickets. We usually end up somewhere in that $1,500 to $2,000 range with the Whopper feed.”

Girard said the money raised at the annual Xtravaganza goes toward specialty tools that aren’t covered in the budget, scholarships for new incoming students and for a field trip to a big manufacturing company in the spring.

“The students get a lot out of this,” he said. “They learn to work with each other. Sometimes they don’t agree with each other, but as a whole, it’s a learning process.”

Ivanhoe native Tristan Sorensen started out in law enforcement, but switched to diesel mechanics this semester.

“I didn’t like law enforcement and mechanics was kind of my backup,” the Minneota graduate said. “I came here and I liked it. It’s a good fit for me. I’ve always been interested in it. And the more I’m here, the more I like it.”

Sorensen said first-year and second-year students split apart and head either north or south to find equipment to put on display for the event.

“Students are pretty much in charge of everything,” Sorensen said. “We go out and recruit equipment and organize everything. (The two different groups) hit all the dealerships we can find.”

For three days leading up to the Xtravaganza, Sorensen said equipment began arriving.

“They’d haul stuff in and we’d wash it, bring it in and park it where we wanted it,” he said. “We pull a curtain around and use the power washer on every one of them. It takes awhile, but it makes them look good. The biggest challenge is getting everything to fit. It’s tough.”

People of all ages seemed to enjoy checking out the different pieces of equipment — several million dollars worth — on display in the shop on campus.

“It’s fun,” Tovia Zitzmann said. “The kids get to go up in the machinery.”

Zitzmann, who attended with her husband, Brian, and their daughters: Emelia, Clara and Nora, are longtime supporters of the event, as were Canby residents Jean and Virgil Voss.

“We support it every year,” Jean Voss said. “They get a big crowd.”

Virgil Voss said they started attending the Xtravaganza because of their daughter-in-law, Lori Voss, who served at Minnesota West’s vice president of administration and retired in the past two years after a 28-year career there.

“She worked here for many years,” he said.

Another loyal supporter is Canby farmer Jim Wiesen, who brought his 3-year-old grandson, Emerson Haugen, with to the event.

“He’s got cash in his pocket (to buy the tractor),” Wiesen said as the youngster pretended to drive the John Deere lawn and garden tractor on display. “We check it out every year. There’s a student who goes to Minnesota West — Logan Tonak — who helps us after school. My son Jordan and I raise cattle southwest of town.”

The Xtravaganza also provides an opportunity for Minnesota West to showcase academic and career opportunities for high school students who attend.

“I signed up (to explore) the diesel mechanics,” Lakeview senior Dakota Haugen said. “I thought it would be fun, so I came out to see what it was about. I like working on stuff. I grew up around race cars and everything.”

Another Lakeview senior, Colin Bossuyt, said he was just along for the ride.

“I’m still looking at options,” he said. “I’m not sure what I want to do yet. (The diesel program looked) pretty cool and my cousin goes here, but I’m not sure yet.”

Minneota sophomore Eric Carrasco took advantage of his time at the event to consider diesel mechanics, as well as the electrician and wind energy programs.

“It was pretty cool walking around here and seeing everything,” Carrasco said. “The electrical stuff, like wind power, caught my eye. But I’m just kind of looking around now.”

Carrasco’s dad, Carlos Carrasco, is a graduate of the diesel program.

“I went through the diesel program two years ago as a non-traditional student,” Carlos Carrasco said. “I liked the program. It was pretty interesting and I like that it’s just a two-year course.”

Carrasco now works at Swede’s Service Center in Minneota.

“I like working with my hands,” he said.

DeVries said a lot has changed in the industry over the past decade or two.

You used to think of a diesel mechanic as somebody that’s dirty, but it’s just not true (anymore),” he said. “We’ve had girls come through the program and are in the industry right now working. There are a lot of technical things to know now. You have to know how to run a computer.”

If it were up to the manufacturers, DeVries said a lot of older technology would still be in place because it’s more reliable. Going electronic is based more on emissions issues, he said.

“In my last few years at RDO, I spent the majority of my time in the after treatment systems on these new machines — that’s how to make our environment cleaner,” DeVries said. “For most of the new (diesel-powered) stuff in here, the air going into the engine is dirtier than the air coming out. They’re cleaning the air as you run them. The efficiency of our new diesel engines is really amazing.”

Program shadowing time was also organized during the day, so visitors could get a glimpse of what the dental assistant program has to offer.

“I came out to see the dental assistant program because it’s close to home compared to traveling,” Wabasso native Candace Jenniges said. “I had a great time. The girls were very, very good at communicating everything. I also got to mold things.”

Jenniges is currently a full-time postsecondary enrollment options (PSEO) student at Southwest Minnesota State University.

“I think this will be the place,” she said of the Canby campus. “I loved it here.”

Minneota graduate Diana DeSmet also looked at the dental assistant program.

“I thought it was really cool,” she said. “It’s only a one-year program and I thought it could be very fun.”