Business Matters: Operator training

In a job market with just 5 percent unemployment, finding anybody to work, let alone skilled heavy equipment operators, has become a huge challenge for contracting companies of all sizes. The average age of a person in the construction business today is pushing 50, and according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, the number of people in the workforce between the ages of 35 and 44 will shrink more than 10 percent in the next five years.

To compound the problem, two thirds of all high school shop classes have shut down in the past 20 years. Parents and career counselors rarely know about or encourage young men and women to consider construction trades, even though only 17 percent of high school graduates in the United States go on to complete four years or more of college.

With the exception of a handful of community colleges, most of the training for heavy equipment and paving equipment operators is being offered by the manufacturers that sell the equipment and by contractor firms using supervisors as trainers and educational materials developed in conjunction with contractor associations.

Fighting time, money and loyalty
The three biggest objections contractors raise against training are that they don’t have the time to pull operators out of the field, they don’t want to spend money on training, and they fear that once they’ve invested the time and money to train an operator, that person is likely to leave and take those skills to the next contractor who pays a few cents more an hour.

When it comes to time, there’s no way around it. You have to make that investment with your own people. Fortunately most manufacturer training sessions are short – two to four days – and are often scheduled during the winter or off season. And many association training programs are sufficiently flexible that your supervisors can train newcomers when it’s most convenient on an as-needed basis. The costs associated with most of these programs are encouragingly inexpensive. Most manufacturers are only looking to recoup their expenses, and the association programs and materials are likewise affordable.

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When it comes to keeping people after you train them, a lot of that depends on your ability to pick the right people – those who are motivated and of good character. The right person will be honored that you chose them for the training and in most cases, say the experts we talked to, become even more loyal to the company – an often overlooked bonus that training brings in addition to increased productivity and efficiency.

And when you send the right people, they sometimes come back with a lot more than just the information presented by instructors. “There is a lot of camaraderie here,” says Dennis Clausen, director of training for GOMACO. “A lot of people share ideas.”

Clausen recalls a group of Canadian contractors who made a point of splitting up and sitting with contractors from other companies at lunch everyday while attending one of GOMACO’s paving seminars. “They were picking the other guys’ brains,” Clausen says. “At the end of the day they’d get back together and make a list of the new ideas they’d heard. Their philosophy was that if they came up with just one idea that saved a couple of loads of concrete per job they’d have paid for the trip down here.”

NUCA’s train-the-trainer approach
None of the major national contractor associations do training themselves directly, but most are involved in developing training guidelines and materials for members and chapters.

Since December 2003 the National Utility Contractors Association has been conducting “train-the-trainer” sessions in various parts of the country. In this approach, contractors send their top supervisors and managers, not to learn how to operate the equipment, but to learn to teach others how to do so. According to Jill Glei, NUCA’s director of education, participants in the Heavy Equipment Operator Training program learn teaching principles and practice delivery techniques over a 2 1/2-day period using multimedia materials. The participants receive a training kit that focuses on the safe, efficient operation of four major pieces of equipment – excavators, backhoes, wheel loaders and dozers. The kit includes 11 training videos, instructional presentations, classroom handouts, tests, equipment check sheets and certificates.

Glei cautions that not all operators make good trainers and recommends contractors review the program’s candidate self-assessment questionnaire before signing a person up. Among other things, NUCA says candidates should have a good safety record, at least 10 years of experience on heavy equipment, be an outgoing individual and computer literate.

So far NUCA has held eight sessions and trained 55 people in the program. The cost for NUCA members is $1,000 and for non-members it’s $1,300. Check this site for updates and information, or call (703) 358-9300.

NCCER’s comprehensive curriculum
You probably won’t find books on heavy equipment operation at your local Barnes & Noble bookstore, but a couple of clicks on the National Center for Construction Education website ( opens up a catalog of dozens of books and manuals on the subject. These include the Heavy Equipment Operations curriculum Levels 1, 2 and 3, which total about 467 hours of instruction and 23 courses covering everything from basic machines to soil types, safety, grading and staking and finishing operations. Also offered is a Highway/Heavy Construction curriculum that includes 170 hours and nine courses covering trucks, equipment, cranes, paving, underground construction, plant operations and structures.

NCCER is a non-profit educational organization, and anyone can purchase its materials. Its curriculum is used by a variety of sources including private contractors, schools and construction associations such as state and local chapters of the Associated General Contractors of America. NCCER itself does not teach or conduct equipment training, but it does offer an Instructor Certification Program to ensure uniform and consistent delivery of training, says Rachel Smith, marketing director. Once a person takes this 24-hour course he or she can be certified as a master trainer and teach others using the NCCER materials.

Each course offers trainee and instructor book/manuals that cost $14. You can also order them as complete sets, perfect bound or in a binder. Completion of these courses will qualify students for academic accreditation with certain institutions and associations. For more information refer to the NCCER website or call (888) 622-3720.

Technical training in paving*
Asphalt paving is one of the most technically challenging and rapidly evolving construction applications and for this reason many paving equipment manufacturers offer in-depth instruction on how to operate these complex machines and how to keep up with the changing demands of new asphalt mixes and laydown techniques.

At the Ingersoll-Rand Road Institute, Bob Begley, manager of technical training, says he gets students from a variety of companies, from the biggest paving companies in the country to small operations that are just starting out. Skill levels likewise vary from beginner to expert. The courses run from two to five days in length and are offered in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and at the company’s newly opened Road Institute West in Phoenix.

Not surprisingly, given the changing nature of asphalt paving technology, Begley says many of the Institute’s students are repeat visitors, many with 12 to 15 years of experience. “A large percentage of our operations courses are attended by the same people who were here in previous years,” he says. “That’s because the contractor realizes the benefits of having operators who know best how to operate the equipment as the mix design changes and how they have to deal with more difficult laydown processes associated with these mixes.”

Nonetheless, beginners also stand to benefit from hands-on instruction in paving, and for a reason most experienced contractors understand. “We’d like to see every new hire come here so they learn how to do it correctly from the get-go,” Begley says. “Too often the new hire learns from whoever is out in the field and these operators may or may not know the correct way to do things.”

Instruction in applications and operations is more or less generic to most brands of paving equipment, Begley says, but maintenance and service tech training is focused on specific Ingersoll-Rand machines.

For more information on asphalt paving, equipment operation and training, go to this site, e-mail [email protected] or call (866) 497-4501.

The world of concrete paving is no less challenging and technical than asphalt, and to keep its customers proficient and abreast of the latest trends and technology, GOMACO University runs two-, three- and four-day courses at its Ida Grove, Iowa, facility. Classes here are geared to the setup, operation, maintenance and diagnostics of specific machines, says Clausen. For more information, visit this site, e-mail [email protected] or call (800) 831-2320.

Another high-tech, high-skill construction application is the use of horizontal directional drills to do underground boring. In this field training is mandatory.

At Ditch Witch, the main emphasis is on training dealer personnel to be the front-line instructors for customers. “We put them through a true train-the-trainer program,” says John Dolezal, manager of Ditch Witch training. “We teach them how to design a training course, how to develop training materials, how to deliver instruction and content to meet the participant’s needs and how to evaluate that training.” Local, dealer-based training not only cuts down on student/customer travel time and expenses, but it allows the dealer-trainer to focus on the local soil conditions and unique area requirements.

Once they’ve completed their training in the company’s Perry, Oklahoma, facilities, the dealer personnel come away prepared to give customers everything from a basic trenchless school to more advanced drilling education. The company will occasionally do advanced training for new equipment, drilling fluids and applications as the technology and techniques evolve in the HDD business, Dolezal says. And since HDD operations often involve additional support equipment – vacuum excavation, electronics, trenching and plowing – training is available on these as well. “The dealers deliver training with just about every product they sell,” Dolezal says.

Vermeer puts its dealer personnel through two levels of train-the-trainer-type training, a four-and-a-half-day basic course and a four-day advanced course. Most of the focus is on the drills, says Marty Meyers, underground business development manager, but they also bring in experts from drilling fluid companies and locator companies to educate their trainees. “It’s a lot of intense classroom training with hands-on training mixed in as well,” Meyers says. Rock boring is also covered briefly in the basic course and more thoroughly in the advanced. “That’s becoming more popular all the time and somewhat of an art since there is no one tool that does it all,” he says.

Most of the people taking the training are full-time dealer product specialists, although some smaller dealers where people wear a lot of different hats may send sales people as well, Meyers says. Once they’ve successfully completed the training offered by the factory they’ll go into the field and spend anywhere from one to three days training contractors, often working to educate new crews.

One thing these trainers pay close attention to is how well the new crews understand the unique requirements of underground boring. “A person might be a great backhoe operator, but that does not necessarily make them a good directional drill operator,” Meyers says. “Our people are trained to identify that very quickly and they’re very honest about saying so.” If a person just doesn’t get it, Meyers says, the trainer will usually recommend that person try working the locator or another support job.

To keep customers and dealers abreast of changing technology, Vermeer puts on annual trenchless roadshow workshops, Meyers says. This, as with the other Vermeer training, is open to more than just Vermeer customers, he says. “We try to keep it generic. It’s not a sales pitch. We’ll use pictures of Vermeer equipment, but we’re trying to help the whole industry.” Meyers also mentions trade show seminars as a part of the company’s education outreach. And recent successes with interactive Web-based new product introductions have convinced Vermeer that Web seminars will also play a role in future customer training.

Rare opportunity for novices
One of the most difficult types of training to find is for novices. But that’s what John Deere specializes in at its Coal Valley (Moline), Illinois, and Phoenix training facilities.

“These are pretty much for rookies,” says Bob Miller, manager of Deere demo sites. “For a lot of our students, equipment operation might be a part-time job. They might operate a backhoe, but not very often. We don’t get very many contractor personnel. Most are from state, federal and local government agencies and utility companies. And there is a smattering of owner-operator types, people who want to learn more about the machinery.”

One exception is the motor grader class, Miller says. “The motor grader is such a sophisticated and difficult machine that even people who are pretty good at it still have a lot they can learn,” he says.

Deere’s operator training programs typically offer 20 hours of instruction with 16 hours of that hands-on in the field. Most of the courses are conducted in the winter, when demand is highest, but the scheduling is flexible, and courses are held year round, Miller says. For more information call (309) 765-4844 for April through October classes and (502) 315-3652 for November through March, or visit this site and click on “construction” and then “safety and training.”

For good operators who want to get better
At Caterpillar Equipment Training Solutions the emphasis is on making good operators even better through a variety of hands-on courses. The company runs programs at its Tinaja Hills (Tucson) Arizona, and Edwards (Peoria), Illinois, facilities. Cat also has a Professional Operator/Train-the-Trainer/Supervisor course designed to equip trainers and supervisors with the knowledge and techniques needed to deliver training at the contractor’s site.

According to Cat, the return on investment for training is demonstrated through the improvement in operator skill, lower costs, increased production and efficiency, longer equipment life, reduced maintenance and repair and safer operations. For more information go to this site, click on “services” and then “training.”

* Most of the major equipment manufacturers offer some type of training on their equipment, some at corporate facilities and some through dealers. We cite only a handful of examples – this is not meant to be a comprehensive list. For companies not mentioned here, check with your local dealer about training opportunities.