Community, Confidence Important Lessons To Diesel And Heavy Equipment Instructor Skeen

Published on: August 30, 2021
Jonathan Skeen, GTCC instructor of diesel and heavy equipment technology working with a student.

The two large cardboard boxes sitting in the rear of Jonathan Skeen’s classroom at Guilford Technical Community College speak volumes about the man and the instructor.

One box is for coat donations to help the homeless. The other is for food donations to help those in need.

“When my students start in August, one of the first things we talk about is a food campaign and a coat campaign,” said Skeen, instructor of diesel and heavy equipment technology at GTCC. “I tell them there are two boxes at the back of my class. One is for food, and one is for coats. If you want to bring food, please do. If you have coats in the closet, and everybody has a coat they don’t wear, and there are folks who need coats, please bring a coat. Put them in the box.

“When the boxes fill up, we take them and donate them to those in need.”

It’s not diesel instruction 101, but it’s certainly community 101, and that’s a big deal to Skeen. He strives to make sure his students enter the workforce with a well-rounded education, not just about trucks and engines, but about life.

“I try to teach you to be self-confident. I want to teach you everything I can teach you, show you everything I can show you, but when you leave here, you need to be confident that you can do the job on your own. If you don’t, you need to ask. That’s all. That’s as easy as it gets,” said Skeen.

The 49-year-old Skeen arrived at the perfect time to help instill confidence. He took over the Diesel/Heavy Equipment Technology program at GTCC January 1, 2020. Two months later the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world and Skeen’s heavily hands-on classes became virtual.

“We went out for spring break in March and didn’t come back until almost the first week of June,” said Skeen. “We did all of our book work online during that time.”

When classrooms opened again in the early summer of 2020 it was constant lab work for Skeen’s students. Lab work is done in the 8,990-square foot garage area in the Centers for Advanced Manufacturing Building near the Jamestown campus. And lab work consists of crawling over, under and around heavy trucks learning what makes them tick and how to fix them when they stop ticking.

“We masked up, stayed our six feet apart, which is almost impossible to do doing what we do, but we did,” Skeen said. “We did out lab time, two months. The guys worked hard, got their lab work in and most of those guys graduated. They had to work, there were some long days, but they got it done.”

Skeen, who is the lone instructor in the Diesel/Heavy Equipment Technology program, has a cap of 18 students for each session. He started the last session with 19. Two transferred, two were high school students. The remaining 16 had jobs before receiving their diplomas.

 “Those are pretty good odds” of getting a good job, said Skeen.

“I get calls every single day from people looking for mechanics. They ask ‘who you got left.’ I tell them ‘I’ve got nobody left’,” said Skeen.

“This last class went above and beyond. Usually, we may lose three or four along the way. This past year may have been one of the top five classes I ever had. They worked together. They were on time. No arguments. No animosity, just smooth sailing from the day they got here.”

Skeen’s classes cover an amazing amount of ground in a year. He begins with the basics: “This is what it is. This is what it is all about. This is a truck. This is a trailer,” he said.

Twelve months later class members will have literally touched every part on a heavy truck. And they quickly learn that Skeen isn’t going to do any of their hands-on work for them.

“I can show them how to do it with my hands, but they won’t learn anything,” said Skeen. “If they put their hands on and do it, do it until they break it even, they’ll know how to do it. If they are going to break something, I want them to break it here, not anywhere else, so when they get to the job, they know what it’s all about.”

While he won’t do his students lab work for them, he loves being hands on. He sort of had to be, growing up on a farm in Denton, North Carolina, a farm where his parents, both in their 70s, and his younger brother still raise 90,000 chickens annually.

“They are the hardest working people I know,” Skeen said of his parents.

Skeen said he was “the kid who took everything apart but never put it back together. I was that guy.”

He said he always had a curiosity about small engines, trying to discover what made them tick. One year, either for his birthday or Christmas, his mother gave him a textbook about small engines.

“It may have been the first book I ever read all the way through, but I wasn’t going to tell her that.”

After a stint in the Army, Skeen enrolled at Randolph Community College, received an automotive systems technology degree, and went to work as an auto mechanic. It wasn’t long, though before he realized his niche was heavy equipment. He spent the next 10 years doing that, before enrolling at High Point University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in history with intentions of teaching. He recently earned a master’s degree in adult education from East Carolina University.

“That just didn’t pan out,” Skeen said of his aspirations of being a history teacher.

That’s when he discovered Davidson County Community College had begun a diesel and heavy equipment program. “I thought this is my time. Let’s see what I can do with it.” He began teaching in that program in 2008 and stayed until he had the opportunity to move to GTCC in 2020.

“I subbed for the director here (GTCC) while he was out having knee replacement and I saw what this place had to offer and sort of kept it in the back of my mind. When he retired, I applied for the job and didn’t think I would ever get it. I’m sure there were 40,000 others with more experience than me and way better than I am. I got lucky and they gave me a chance.”

And he’s made the most of that opportunity, doing his best to make sure his students have solid opportunities in their futures.

“I have students’ phone numbers from the last 15 years. My phone number will never change. If any of my students ever need me for anything, all they have to do is call,” said Skeen. “My classes are a lifetime. Five years from now if you run across something you don’t understand, you can call me. If I can’t figure it out, I’ll call someone that can.”


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