Apprentices Help Build Their Own Training Facility – And Used the Latest Tech to Do It

Updated Dec 16, 2021
Union operating engineer uses a dozer with Trimble Earthworks.
Students helped build their future at the Southern Nevada Operating Engineers JATC.
Southern Nevada Operating Engineers JATC

In 2019, the Southern Nevada Operating Engineers was faced with a problem.

The Las Vegas community had exploded in size around the training facility it moved into in the mid-90s. The once prime location was no longer an ideal spot for heavy equipment training and operation.

It was time to move and rebuild for the future – and who better to do the rebuilding than the students and instructors themselves?

“Some of the apprentices we worked with onsite had never been in equipment before this project,” says Larry Hopkins, SNOE director of training. “They went from zero experience applicants to having the privilege of working alongside several instructors, coordinators and seasoned tradespeople to make this facility come to life.”

The new 28,000-square-foot center sits on nearly 100 acres and features state-of-the-art training rooms, classrooms, a machine shop, welding stations, and grounds to move dirt and simulate projects.

“It was a very proud moment to see it start from bare dirt and rock to what we have now,” says Chris Trolson, SNOE assistant director of training. “It’s fulfilling to see our students go out there and take ownership of this. You could feel the pride because they can see what they accomplished.”

Heavy equipment operating students at a construction site.Southern Nevada Operating Engineers JATCStudents assisted with everything from grading the site to paving the parking lot, and they used the latest technology to do it. Under the guidance of operating engineers and instructors, SNOE students used full 3D Trimble Earthworks automatics on an excavator, two dozers and on a mastless grader, as well as Trimble Siteworks on rovers and WorkManager to facilitate the data remotely.

And for many of the students, the technology was second nature. “Our students just out of high school or their early 20s are much less afraid of the technology than those of us who have been around for 35 or 40 years,” says Hopkins. “They have an advantage growing into this technology. They’re excited about it.”

Education embedded with technology

In addition to the technology used to build the facility, tech is embedded in almost every aspect of the training programs and classrooms.

Twelve 600-square-foot classrooms are equipped with 4K smart boards, cameras and AV for interactive learning and guest speakers. The boards are also a good starting point for familiarizing students with machine displays. “Instead of trying to crowd 10 to 12 kids around a cab, we can show them Trimble emulators on the board,” says Trolson. “You see the a-ha moments once they get into the field. They build off that experience.”

In addition, simulators acquaint students with the equipment before turning them out in the field. “You’ll have 500 bad passes before you get a good pass on a piece of equipment,” says Trolson. “With simulators, we can get rid of a lot of that before we go out in the field. It helps build that confidence so they know they can do it.” The trainers plan to add virtual reality simulators down the road for an even more immersive experience.

Students in the heavy-duty repair program are also engaged in technology from day one. “They have to be familiar with the computer technology that is running the heavy equipment and how to troubleshoot it,” says Hopkins. “I’m not exaggerating when I say there are 200 to 300 different kinds of systems and menus on these different makes and models of equipment. It can be a nightmare. That technological training is wrapped into everything we do.”

Southern Nevada Operating Engineers JATC under construction.Southern Nevada Operating Engineers JATCBuilding a labor force

Since opening its doors in July, the instructors have already trained several classes of operators and technicians. In an industry desperately seeking workers, the trainers say there is a lot to be optimistic about.

“Work is starting to pick up and my phone has been ringing off the hook,” says Trolson. “We have a lot of applicants we’re going to be putting in the field. Our regular classes are always full.”

“We’re not having issues recruiting,” added Hopkins. “Contractors just need to give us a call, and we’ll provide the people they need.”

The facility routinely has 125-150 apprentices training at any one time, primarily from the four surrounding counties in southern Nevada. The trainers have seen an uptick in women and minorities entering the program in recent years as well.

And as for graduates, the market is good. “Every one of those apprentices who helped with the facility construction has not been out of work since,” says Hopkins. “They went from working on this project straight to contractors and are still going today.”

Once those new recruits hit your jobsite, the education doesn’t stop. Trolson’s best advice for mentoring new employees: patience. “Teach them. Bring them along. You’re investing into the future with this person. You have to put the time and effort into it to get the payback.”

The Southern Nevada Operating Engineers JATC will be used as the new live demonstration and operating site for Trimble Dimensions, held November 7-9, 2022.