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In the fall of 2010, The Immokalee Foundation introduced the heavy equipment mechanics training program at Immokalee Technical Center, thanks to the guidance and support of Don Fites, the former CEO of Caterpillar. Mr. Fites was instrumental in collaborating with the public and private sectors to raise funds for the program.

With the support of The Caterpillar Foundation, the Fites Family Charitable Trust, Kelly Foundation Inc. and Kelly Tractor, in conjunction with the District School Board of Collier County, the HEM training program, a state-of-the-art curriculum designed to prepare graduates to enter a field in high demand throughout the United States and Latin America, was launched.

Through the HEM program, Immokalee students receive training in heavy equipment operation, production and repair, providing them valuable hands-on experience and direct preparation for the workplace. The content includes practical experiences in electronic engine operation, diesel engine complete rebuild, hydraulic system testing, heavy equipment fleet maintenance performance and transmission rebuild with specialized skills in electronics, such as use of manufacturers’ diagnostic tools.

Since the program’s inception, iTECH instructor Bob Moore has helped dedicated students spend thousands of hours training to be competitive on a global level — and it is paying off for many, including Roberto Salazar, a 2010 Immokalee High School graduate.

Mr. Salazar was one of the first students to enroll in the HEM program. He says that while he had thought about college, he never pictured himself going. “I felt college wasn’t for me, so when I heard about the heavy equipment mechanics program, I was excited,” he says. “We had never had anything like it before in Immokalee.”

With the help of TIF, which provided a supplemental scholarship to help with the necessary books, uniforms, tools and more, Mr. Salazar enrolled in the first HEM class.

“I had worked on equipment before and enjoyed it, but this was different,” he says. “We were taking engines apart and rebuilding them. Mr. Moore was really helpful.”

After his first year in the program, he had the opportunity to take his training one step further during a 10-week summer internship with Ring Power Corp. in Tampa, which provided real life preparation for the workplace. “It was really invaluable because it gave me hands-on experience,” he says. “When I returned to school for my second year, I felt I had learned so much in a short time during my summer experience.”

In May 2012, Mr. Salazar was among 12 young men who graduated from the first HEM training program. At the time, 10 of the 12 graduates had already secured jobs, including Mr. Salazar. He had left an impression on executives at Ring Power, one of the largest Caterpillar dealers in the Southeastern United States, and was offered a position. Today, he is still with the company as a heavy equipment technician at the corporation’s Tampa division.

Mr. Salazar is grateful to TIF and the HEM program for providing him with the opportunity to grow and advance in ways he never thought possible. He credits Elda Hernandez, program manager for TIF’s Career Development Program, and Mr. Moore for helping him achieve his goals. “Ms. Elda and Mr. Moore always pushed me and encouraged me,” he says. “They cared about how I was doing and how my grades were. They wanted me to do well.”

TIF’s Career Development Program focuses on career empowerment and postsecondary readiness through experiences that emphasize leadership, skills development and community service. Students participate in career panels, job shadowing, internships, interview training and more. The program is one of several offered by TIF to help empower Immokalee’s youth and broaden their experiences and life skills so they can achieve economic independence.