South Plains College's diesel technician program became the first in Texas to receive accreditation by the Associated Equipment Distributors Foundation this week during a ceremony in Levelland.

Marty McCormack, associate director of development and workforce for the AED Foundation, told students, faculty and representatives from area businesses that the program has close to 50 programs accredited nationwide and is working to expand. The foundation started about 25 years ago as the nonprofit branch of AED, with the focus of bringing qualified technicians and employees to the heavy equipment industry. The foundation also concentrates on providing continuing education to employees, career promotion among prospective technicians and advocacy for the industry.

McCormack was one of many AED officials to make the trip from Chicago to Levelland to celebrate the South Plains College accreditation. Another AED Foundation official at the event was Robert Henderson, president emeritus of the foundation, who told students in the back of the room in the diesel tech training facility that students are the reason they came to Levelland.

"Forty percent of your peers who went to a four-year program are unemployed. A third of those live at home," Henderson said, noting that he talked his own niece out of a four-year program and into a community college because he felt she was not ready. "She might go back and do something later, who knows?"

But he assured the SPC students they had made the correct choice. They may start out as diesel technicians, he said, but there are a wide number of career opportunities available to them in the future once they know about how to diagnose and fix problems with diesel engines.

Whit Perryman, chairman of the AED Foundation and president of Vermeer Texas-Louisiana, said his own company has 12 openings it would hire for "today" if only they could find workers with skills such as those SPC students are learning. He said he knows competing businesses are in the same situation.

In his company alone, Perryman said, $1.5 million per year is lost because of a lack of diesel technicians.

Mentioning that South Plains College has Texas' first AED-accredited program, Whitney Owens, SPC program coordinator and professor said, "We're going to fly that flag high and proud."

He said SPC saw the accreditation as a way to improve the quality of the program and the quality of its graduates. The diesel tech program has been in existence since the 1970s, he said, and primarily services the heavy truck market and some agriculture in the area.

"We saw this also as a way to elevate and branch out, add another layer to what we produce here. And AED has some good criteria, some very rigid criteria that you have to comply with to be able to get this accreditation," Owens said.

Locally, he said, the demand for diesel techs outstrips the supply "horrendously." Within the first several weeks of this semester, Owens said SPC has already fielded 10-12 phone calls from businesses looking for graduates. Some students have already gotten jobs and are working while finishing their training.

While he said starting pay in the area ranges widely between $12 and $25 per hour, he said it is not uncommon to be earning six figures after gaining "a few years of experience."

Ryan Gibbs, vice president of SPC, said program-level certifications are vital to any career in a technical training program.

"We have to stay on top, on the leading edge when it comes to training, when it comes to education," Gibbs said.