Luke Shepherd is an Ivy Tech ITEP program success who is working in the FCA's ITP Plant I with tool maker Seth McCorkle on May 24, 2019.

Tim Bath | Kokomo Tribune

In a few short years, whether he enjoys the accolades or even saw them coming, Luke Shepherd has become a trailblazer, or at the very least a pioneer.

When he graduated from Ivy Tech Community College on May 10 with an Associate of Science degree in Engineering Technology, Shepherd was honored as the Dean’s Award winner in Engineering Technology, also earning a Technical Certificate for completing the General Education Transfer Core.

Earlier this year, he was honored with the Indiana Career and Technical Education Award for Excellence.

But perhaps most importantly, among all the distinctions he’s already built on his resume, is what he and a group of 26 fellow graduates celebrated at commencement when they were honored as part of Ivy Tech Kokomo Service Area’s first graduates in the Integrated Technology Education Program.

“It’s been really interesting, starting the program,” Shepherd said. “Being the first class, you really don’t have anybody to look ahead to so you really don’t know what the future entails.

“I have learned so much more than expected. I had an idea of things I wanted to do, but now I really know what I want to do in the future because of this program.”

The ITEP program combines the resources of Ivy Tech, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and area high schools and career centers to offer “career pathways that feature technical certificates in high industrial technology fields,” according to Ivy Tech.

In Shepherd’s case, which began early in high school and has landed him at Kokomo’s FCA Indiana Transmission Plant I this summer, his path has followed mostly very closely what the program is striving to achieve. His plan is to finish off his bachelors’ degree at Purdue Polytechnic Institute. It could take a little longer, as he may end up with a full time offer at FCA thanks to the ITEP program.

The fields — students participate in ITEP at no cost through a federal grant — are chosen to establish a manufacturing and skilled-trade interest in high school students seen as the next generation of a workforce that could soon be hit hard by retiring baby boomers.

“We’ve got a big turnover coming, and we’ve got to be ready for that,” said Bob Varsanik, General Manager of Transmission and Component Operations at FCA.

Varsanik said he’s impressed that the program is developing students for multiple opportunities and interests, not just management-geared fields, with students interested in being electricians, welders and toolmakers among other things.

“We’re developing them to really do what they want to do and have the passion to do it whether it’s on the management side or the union side or a little bit of both,” Varsanik said.

“It just opens up their doors so wide for what they could do down the road.”


The fact that Varsanik has been so vocal in championing the project is why it has worked, according to contingencies at both Ivy Tech and FCA. Prior to his pushing this, Chrysler had never allowed high school students in the plant.

Varsanik began his effort for the ITEP push when he was approached by Jim Woolf, who is in charge of FCA’s community education outreach talent development.

“Jim Woolf brought this idea to me to get high schools involved and I thought it was something we’d be able to kick off just like, boom, no problem,” Varsanik said. “It took us probably a good part of a year just to work through logistics, legal issues, issues with insurance, just getting it off the ground.”

A look at manufacturing data, not just in Indiana but regionally and nationally, shows a general consensus of a limited pool of incoming workforce.

According to Woolf, much of that likely has to do with a decades-long period of time when the focus went to four-year degrees that were no longer hands on. When he was hired in 2013, he immediately connected with Ivy Tech.

“My job, way back when we started was to get the word out basically,” Woolf said. “Everything has evolved and it’s still evolving. Jan [Bailey] and I were part of the first grant that Ivy Tech wrote, we helped write that in 2014, the Youth CareerConnect [YCC] grant, which really was a launch pad for the ITEP program.”

In April 2014, Ivy Tech Kokomo was one of 24 grantees across the United States to receive funding to participate in the YCC grant, awarded by the Department of Labor. The federal grant totaled $3.2 million for the Kokomo school to be used toward providing 10th-12th grade students in local high schools and career centers the opportunity to begin a career pathway toward an associate degree in one of eight manufacturing fields, according to an Ivy Tech release.

The first class of high schoolers began the FCA program in September of 2015. As of the beginning of the spring semester in 2019, according to data from Ivy Tech, 1,235 high school students have enrolled in industrial related dual credit courses with 719 students enrolled in the grant program.

Additionally, a total of 45 employers throughout an eight-county area have hosted a work-based learning student, and 143 students have completed a semester of work-based learning with an area employer.

“In the graduating class this year we have 26 on this list and nine of them have been through the FCA work-based learning,” said Bailey, program manager for ITEP/YCC at Ivy Tech. “Some of these students just graduated from high school last year, and they had enough dual credit in their pathway to come to us and work very hard to get their associate degree in one year.

“They really know there’s opportunities in the workforce and for a young person to be that dedicated, their eyes are a little bit further down the road than most young 18-year olds because of the exposure they have had. It’s been really good.”

Woolf said the IDEP program can be seen as a three-year program. In their senior year in high school, the students spend a semester in work-based learning.

“We really started looking at how do we get these young people involved, we can’t do it when they are seniors graduating so we started back as freshman and sophomores, of which Luke was one of our first students we were able to kind of nab and start to coach and mentor through the process,” Woolf said.

Varsanik, a Purdue grad, said one of his main jobs at this point with the program is to be a support advocate.

“I make it a point to speak to every group of kids when they come in with their parents,” Varsanik said. “To me, if there’s no advocate to this, this thing could die pretty quick.”

Varsanik would like to see more women become interested in the advanced manufacturing aspect, noting that only around five women have graduated the program up to this point.

He would also like to see more people stay in their home communities to work.

“I think we owe it to our community and our society to help as many people as possible, even knowing that you’re not going to get 100 percent of them,” Varsanik said. “Because we might get some of them back down the road.

“With the ITEP program, we’re recruiting people from home to work at home and hopefully to stay in the surrounding area and make a career of it.”


A Greentown resident and 2017 Eastern High School graduate, Shepherd’s path began early in high school when he got involved in the program and progressed eventually into the FCA Indiana Transmission Plant I.

“It started my sophomore year of high school,” Shepherd said. “After your freshman year at Eastern they get everybody together and start signing up for classes for the next year. I don’t remember the exact name but advanced manufacturing was something on the list and that kind of sparked my interest and so I went into that not knowing exactly what it entailed.

“I have a lot of family that work at FCA and a lot of people I know who work in manufacturing so I knew what some of that was about but I wanted to expand on that and felt like it was something I wanted to pursue.”

That began a course that led him to high school work study. The unpaid program offered an opportunity for Shepherd to learn and observe, to find out if there was a particular area he was really interested in, being exposed to different areas and different parts of FCA along the way.

“It’s kind of to give them a full flavor of the plant,” said Ron Brantley, an FCA skilled trades maintenance coordinator who runs the ITEP program for Indiana Transmission Plant I in Kokomo. “A lot of people don’t realize what goes on inside a Chrysler plant or manufacturing plant. It’s kind of to teach them all of the opportunities they have and show them that.

“I think that’s a big key to the program, that the kids are informed now and they have experienced it,” Brantley said. “Now when they go to school it’s something they know they like.”

Josh Speer, Ivy Tech dean of advanced manufacturing, engineering and applied sciences, said that concept hit the nail on the head.

“That’s the key,” Speer said. “Most traditional college students come not knowing 100 percent what they want to do. They start learning the material and then the bulk majority of them change majors within their first two years.

“This is giving them a direct pathway where they can discover what they want to do and then they can work towards it in a very specific path and get done in a lot of cases ahead of time because of the extra dual credit at the high school and then they enter the workforce at a much faster rate.”

Shepherd said he highly suggests the program for young students interested even a slight bit in manufacturing.

“I mean, opportunities like this don’t come along very often and it’s truly a once in a lifetime experience to go into these facilities and get to learn and see all the things that actually happen,” Shepherd said. “So if you’re interested I’d say it’s definitely something to go towards and if you get in there and figure out after your senior year, this isn’t for me, you’re not stuck there.

“This is really seeing if this is something you want to do. I think that’s what’s really great about the half days your senior year. You’re not stuck, this isn’t the rest of your life, this is you getting in there and understanding if this is something you’re interested in and want to do.”


The YCC grant expires in September, and Ivy Tech officials are looking for ways to keep the program going.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Speer said. “We are looking for other potential grants. As a college, we know that the program works. It’s feeding our community not only through FCA but other programs. We know that we want to expand it. The college’s mission is true workforce alignment and this is a model program for workforce alignment. As a college we’re looking to expand into other sectors that have high community need.”

Bailey believes a strong foundation is in place to build upon with the growing success of the program.

“It’s been a five-year progress and it started with a grant, but the grant has such a great foundation that it will change a little bit, it will evolve, but it’s going to keep going,” Bailey said. “It’s not like some grants that just go away and you don’t have that opportunity to connect and there’s more and more people.”

Brantley is on board for the future as well.

“We took the first group in and obviously it went really well,” Brantley said. “I’ve tried to stay involved ever since, promote the program and make sure the students get a good, well-rounded experience while they are in the plants working with our journeymen on a daily basis.”

And Woolf went to the numbers.

“Ivy Tech has invested $1,710,000 in tuition that parents and kids don’t have to pay, since 2016,” Woolf said. “That’s amazing to me. And then when you turn around and you multiply Ron’s time and all those mentors time we as a company have invested well over, close to $2 million in these kids.”

And for Shepherd, it’s about the opportunity the experience has offered, not just for himself, but for others as well.

“The different paths and stuff is great,” Shepherd said. “If you go into FCA through the ITEP program and you see this is something that you do like and enjoy, there’s tons of different manufacturing facilities just here in Kokomo other than FCA. FCA is just the big one. So if you want to go work at different places or you want to be a trade instead, you want to get a journeyman’s card those are always options too and I think it’s great it can be diverse like that.”

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