MPCC beginnings lead to lifelong automotive career for Indianola man
From driving tractors in rural Nebraska to running a Honda training center in Connecticut, Gene Esch is proof that you can go anywhere in life with the right opportunities.
For him, one of those opportunities was Mid-Plains Community College.
“MPCC is a huge asset to its service area,” Esch said. “Not all kids have the money to move away from home and go to a four-year college or university, and I was one of them. Mid-Plains provided me with a quality education at a price I could afford.”
Esch is the coordinator for an American Honda Motor Company training center in Windsor Locks, Conn. His responsibilities include overseeing the training of 1,500 Honda technicians in the New England area every year.
“I have 30 cars ranging from 2015s-2022s,” Esch said. “The technicians come in for a week at a time and learn the basics on them – everything from electrical circuits and fuel emissions to brakes, suspensions and alignment – you name it, they work on it. We put bugs in the cars for the technicians to diagnose using skills we teach them. When they master out, they get a certificate.”
Esch’s position is one he never envisioned for himself while growing up at Indianola. Back then, he didn’t really know what he wanted to do – except venture beyond the horizon.
“I grew up in a welding shop and on a farm, so I got started working on farm equipment right out of high school,” Esch said. “At that time, I didn’t want to go back to the farm. I wanted to get out of Nebraska and do something different like so many kids that age. But, I did like fixing cars and tractors and working with my hands.”
Esch graduated from Republican Valley High School in the spring of 1986 and got a job at the John Deere dealership in McCook. That fall, he began taking classes at Mid-Plains Community College – studying automotive technology during the day and diesel at night.
“Night classes were free if you took a full course load, so I took every diesel class I could,” Esch said. “I went back a third year for auto body because even though I was still undecided, I knew I wanted to be in the auto industry and the auto body classes gave me more skills for my résumé.”
Esch returned to John Deere following his graduation from Mid-Plains in 1989 and was subsequently moved to the company’s dealership in Oberlin, Kan. He worked part-time in the automotive department and part-time in the tractor shop.
Esch was back in McCook less than a year later, working as the sole technician for Snowden Motors.
“You learn quickly when there’s no one around to help you,” he said. “My first trip to Denver to a Honda training, that’s when I decided I wanted to be an instructor and give back. I never thought I wanted to teach before, but once I got into the GM and Honda training, I realized how much those instructors meant to the preparation of students.”
Esch remained at the dealership after it was bought out by Howard Kool Motors in 1990. In 1999, the Honda offerings were split off into their own store. When that happened, Esch took over as the new store’s service and parts manager and lead technician.
He had begun taking night classes at MPCC’s campus in McCook to work toward his goal of becoming an instructor but was on the move again before he could finish.
Esch spent the next decade climbing up through the industry ranks and traversing the country – from Manhattan, Kan. to Torrance, Calif.
His opportunity to teach finally came in 2013, when he hired on as an instructor with American Honda. For the next couple of years, he taught technicians from Honda dealerships.
“At that time, we had 11 zones and 12 training centers,” Esch said. “The Training Center in Torrance stretched from Bakersfield south to the Mexican border and out into parts of Arizona and Nevada. It took me about a year to get used to the slower pace and to sitting at a desk and giving knowledge back, but it was rewarding. When technicians would thank me and tell me I taught them something – that’s when I knew I was where I was supposed to be.”
In 2015, his job shifted to field engineering covering 96 dealerships.
“It was a newly created position,” Esch said. “I would go to the stores and fix troubled cars that the dealers couldn’t fix. I was based out of Corona and would work with the factories and engineers to come up with different repairs.”
Esch relocated again, to Irving, Texas, before being transferred to Connecticut in 2020 for his current position.
His career has been a whirlwind of opportunities and experiences, but Esch hasn’t lost sight of where he came from.
“I’m glad I started out the way I did,” Esch said. “The one-on-one instruction I received at Mid-Plains is similar to how I teach now. Most technical students are visual, hands-on learners, and I can relate to that.”
Outside of the training center, Esch can be found sharing his expertise through SkillsUSA – something he was also introduced to at Mid-Plains.
“The automotive instructors got me started judging, and I really enjoyed it,” Esch said. “I wrote and designed the electrical portion for the national competition last June in Atlanta, and now I’m working on next year’s event.”
Preparing a new generation of technicians is even more important to him now that’s he’s seen all aspects of the industry.
“It was hard to find technicians before Covid, and now it’s worse,” Esch said. “A tremendous amount left the industry. That’s why community colleges are so important. Not everyone needs a four-year school to make a good living. The skills community colleges provide keep the workforce going, and I’m glad I took the time that I attended one to soak up everything I could.”