New diesel mechanic program at Chemeketa aims to put students in hard-to-fill jobs

Diesel mechanic student Roman Hovey scrapes gaskets on an oil pan during a lab at Chemeketa Community College on Jan. 27 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Kevin Ruby’s first car was a Volkswagen Rabbit with a diesel engine that didn’t run.

His father gifted him the car for his 15th birthday, Ruby said, saying he needed to get the engine up and running. 

After spending his childhood fixing cars with his dad, it was his first solo engine rebuild.

“I fixed it up and got a paint job on it. I drove that until I got another one,” he said.

Ruby has been tinkering with engines since and is now the inaugural teacher for Chemeketa Community College’s diesel mechanic program, moving back to his hometown from Montana to take the job. 

Classes launched in January with nine students. 

The program has been five years in the making, part of the college’s effort to add more career technical education offerings to train students for in-demand jobs and bolster shrinking enrollment.

In 2018, Chemeketa received a $100,000 grant from Marion County to cover some equipment costs. Finding a location proved challenging, but the college eventually found a warehouse to lease next to its existing campus in Brooks.

Ruby was hired in August and spent months browsing surplus listings and reaching out to equipment manufacturers to outfit the program on a $200,000 budget. The warehouse now includes several diesel engines procured from military surplus, trucks donated by Daimler Trucks North America and a fire engine no longer needed by the college’s fire science program.

Diesel mechanic instructor Kevin Ruby, left, talks to student Nate Hanson during a lab on Jan. 27 at Chemeketa Community College’s Brooks campus. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Students spend four afternoons per week on-site, disassembling and reassembling engines, learning to use diagnostic tools and working on semi-trucks, ambulances, dump trucks and other vehicles.

Diesel engines typically have more complex electronics and hydraulics than gas engines, requiring a more varied skillset for mechanics. Diesel mechanics have to be well-versed in computers to run diagnostic software on engines and identify problems, Ruby said.

Ruby said diesel mechanics are in demand to work on a variety of engines, including school buses, city and county public works vehicles and Department of Transportation rigs, as well as private companies.

“All of them need somebody,” he said.

Roman Hovey, 18, enrolled in the program while finishing his senior year of high school in Dundee. He said the diesel mechanic program appealed to him because he likes hands-on work and wanted a career where he could earn a good living.

“I’m trying to start as early as I can,” said Hovey. “I just want to see where it takes me.”

Nate Hanson, 20, found out about the program through his high school in Silverton.

“I wanted to be a diesel mechanic and this was the shortest drive,” he said.

Garrett Hillebrand, 18, graduated from Dallas High School last year and said he spent his childhood working on diesel engines on his family’s farm. His grandfather was a machinist and taught him many of the skills.

“I kind of followed in his footsteps,” he said.

The two-year program includes internship requirements, and Ruby said students can earn certifications on specific systems throughout the program which will let them work in shops, even before completing their degrees.

“The goal is to get them working in the summertime,” he said.

The current group of students was recruited largely through word of mouth, he said. There’s space for up to 15 in the current class, with room to expand once the college is able to hold more in-person classes. More information is available on Chemeketa’s website.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.