Turfgrass mechanic program opens doors for Western Canadian college graduate

Mike Jiggens
March 09, 2010
By
When he worked as a lift attendant at a ski resort on Vancouver Island, Reef Caulder may not have known what his future would bring, but he knew what he wanted—to be a mechanic.
He admits he’s always enjoyed taking machinery apart. Over the years, those projects expanded from clocks to bicycles to cars. After he graduated from high school, he worked on a number of golf courses as groundskeeper and assistant mechanic. He worked at Mt. Washington for five seasons, became fascinated with the heavy-duty snow equipment—and never forgot the experience.

Back on golf courses, the 26-year-old Nanaimo native came to realize he needed official training if he was to get the mechanic jobs he wanted. He researched the various trades programs available, then asked around for recommendations. In the end, the choice was simple and he enrolled in the one-year turfgrass equipment technician (TET) program at GPRC’s Fairview College Campus (formerly NAIT’s Fairview Campus) in Fairview, Alta.

“The course was great because it gave full training,” Caulder said. “They didn’t just give you the basics and then expect you to go out and learn the rest on the job. Every part of the course was beneficial.”

The program starts with a month-long distance education module beginning in September. This allows those students working on golf courses to finish their seasonal work schedules. Classroom study begins Oct. 1, and the program finishes at the end of April. Working in the industry beforehand was a benefit, at least for Caulder.

“I think it was the key to my success with my grades and my learning process,” he said. “Knowing how the machines work and how they are really used is key to troubleshooting and fixing problems.”

According to Bear Moffatt, an instructor in the TET program, the 32-week course begins with such fundamentals as tool handling and safety, but quickly moves into the nuts and bolts—and diagnostics—of engine maintenance and repair.

The equipment in the program is identical to that used on golf courses, but three other modules—marine, recreation and power—provide additional training for other small machinery, such as  boat engines, ATVs and generators. The TET program is so wide-ranging and comprehensive that students can find jobs not only on golf courses, but also in municipal public works departments and parks. The certificate programs also include a work practicum.

Contrary to only a few years ago, nearly all golf course equipment today is diesel. Moffatt said they are no more trouble-free than gasoline engines—and just as much in need of good mechanics. Today’s high-tech diagnostic equipment means technicians must have computer skills as well as inventory management knowledge. The TET program includes these modules, too.

“It was very well done,” Caulder said. “I learned a lot.”

He was still interested in heavy-duty equipment, though. When he graduated from the TET program, he had expected to return to the golf course where he had been working, but that job wasn’t available. He turned to a company whose distribution centre had featured in a field trip from the TET program and was hired by Oak Creek Golf and Turf Inc., a Calgary-based equipment dealer with branches across Western Canada.

“And that’s where it started to happen.” he said. His story is still unfolding.

Working for his new employer, he continued to improve his mechanical skills and knowledge, first taking the heavy-duty mechanic apprenticeship program at Fairview and then more mechanical training at SAIT, which is closer to where he works.

That’s the beauty of the TET program, Moffatt said. When students complete it, they can certainly get jobs, but they can also look higher. They will have the knowledge to write the fourth-year OPET (outdoor power equipment technician) apprenticeship exam. Doing so while what they’ve learned is still fresh in their minds is a definite advantage. After that, they need only get the hours in the workplace to qualify for their journeyman’s ticket—4,000 hours, or about four years of work as a mechanic.

With TET under their belts, aspiring mechanics can also enter other trades programs at the second-year level, as Caulder did.

Working at Oak Creek provided Caulder another bonus—exposure to the big heavy-duty hydraulic machinery he loves best. The company is the Western Canada distributor for the German-made Pisten Bully, a line of specialized ski hill grooming equipment. While there are many ski hills around Calgary using the equipment, Caulder became focused on one in particular. His mechanical aptitude on this large machinery led him straight to Whistler and the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Caulder was part of a crew of mechanics and technicians who were working at Whistler to help maintain the equipment needed to groom the slopes for Olympic events. He went to Whistler for special training sessions, including those offered last May. About 40 machines already were in place, along with a skeleton crew of mechanics.

The big tractor-tread machines had a critical job to perform, but few visitors got to see them. They were expected to be working late and long hours, beginning when the Olympic events end around 4:30 p.m. Then they were to be moved out to repair, build and groom the event slopes until 8 a.m.

Although Caulder wasn’t to be working the machines, he was to be among the team of mechanics ready to fix any equipment that developed problems—day or night. He was expected to have to test drive them to ensure they were ready for action.

Although the path from lawnmowers to snow-moving equipment did involve some luck, Caulder was focused on what he wanted from the start—and studied hard to ensure he got the skills he needed to further his career.

He admits to being a passionate golfer, skier, snowmobiler and hockey player. He can indulge all of these interests because he has a good, full-time job in an industry where technicians are always in demand.

Golf courses are working, even in winter, Moffatt said.

Playing golf may be a summer pastime, but the work behind the scenes isn’t. In winter, golf course equipment has to be repaired, maintained, and readied for the finer weather. Grass-cutters, sprayers, irrigation equipment, pesticide applicators, fertilizer spreaders and ATVs are all standard on golf courses these days.

“Mechanics at golf courses are full-time,” Moffatt said.

The TET program has stellar credentials. Graduates now work in golf courses around the world. In an era where the job market is shrinking, jobs like these are excellent career opportunities. There is no lack of either ski hills or golf courses, and the demand both for the specialized equipment, and the mechanics to service them, is growing. 

Caulder said that for him the TET program was life-changing and he highly recommends it.
“The Fairview program was where it all started for me. That’s where I got the work tools and knowledge to continue.”

NAIT’s Fairview Campus became the Fairview College Campus of Grande Prairie Regional College (GPRC), effective July 1, 2009, offering post-secondary education options in a range of fields.

For more information visit: www.gprc.ab.ca.

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