March 27, 2003

Students learn to handle the heavy metal

  • Group starts its first heavy equipment operator program
    Construction Industry Training Council

    equipment school
    Photos courtesy of CITC
    Jenilee Marzolf, on the excavator, checks grade with Dustin Hoffman to prepare for placement of a simulated rockery with a 4:1 batter.

    The 14 students in the Construction Industry Training Council’s first heavy equipment operator apprenticeship program come from backgrounds as diverse as jewelry sales and residential framing. Despite their varied work experience, they share a common goal — they want to have good paying careers in the construction industry.

    Until recently, apprenticeship for heavy equipment operators was not available for workers who choose to work with open-shop contractors instead of joining a union. CITC has worked for more than two years to gain statewide approval from the state Apprenticeship and Training Council.

    “This is good for both employers and employees,” said Frank Imhof, president of Imco General Construction in Bellingham. “It gives employers the opportunity to train our workers and affords the workers a good wage while they are learning new skills.”

    Students who want to enter the program must meet specific criteria. They must be at least 18 years old, have a high school diploma or GED, be physically able to do the work and hold a Washington driver’s license. In addition, they must pass the Scheig Utility Worker 1.0 written assessment and interview with members of the apprenticeship committee before being admitted.

    The training is open to anyone, but most students are registered as apprentices and employed by companies who participate in the apprenticeship program.

    The program is a 7,000-hour on-the-job apprenticeship that requires 160 classroom hours per year for three and a half years. Classes are held in January and February in two, two-week sessions of 40 hours per week. As has been the case with all of CITC’s training programs, both contractors and suppliers gave a good deal of time and equipment to ensure that this program is a success. Instructors, who are certified by the National Center for Construction Education and Research and are paid by CITC, also get a good deal of support from their employers.

    “For every hour we spend teaching we put in another hour of preparation time,” said Rod Majors, a project superintendent with Wilder Construction Co. and lead instructor for the class. “Some we do at home, but our employers are also very supportive by allowing us time for organizational meetings and instructor training.”

    Majors has been in the construction industry for 16 years and is an enthusiastic instructor because he also loves the work he does in the field. “I like nothing more than helping students gain a marketable skill that they can use anywhere in the country,” he said.

    In addition to Majors, instructors for the first class are: Corrigan Gates and Allan Myers from Wilder Construction and Kreg Oveson with Grade Inc.

    The second two-week block of the class was further enhanced by MP&E, The Cat Rental Store’s donation of a number of pieces of equipment.

    “We are happy to loan equipment for educational purposes,” said Jeff Cameron of MP&E. “Our goal is to ensure the safe operation of equipment as well as maximizing the skill and productivity of the workers.”

    equipment school
    Students work on a simulated retention pond and berm while preparing to check the slope grade.

    The equipment for the class ran the gamut, from small skidsteer loaders and mini excavators to low ground pressure dozers and hydraulic excavators.

    Use of a 7-acre undeveloped site on the Tulalip Reservation allowed class members to work on simulated projects, including: a 2-foot-deep pond with a 6-foot-high berm and a 2:1 slope in and out and 405 feet of infiltration trench; a 200-foot-long and 30-foot-wide road bed with a 2:1 slope roadside V-ditch; and a rock retaining wall project that included design, field survey, grade check and staking, excavation and placement of rockery with a 4:1 batter.

    “In addition to learning the safe operation of the equipment, the students learn the specific tasks for which the equipment is best suited,” said Majors. “They also develop teamwork skills which are vital to efficient field operations when they are on the job.”

    Ashley Fowler, a 19-year-old who is not registered as an apprentice, joined the class as an independent student and became proficient in grade checking as well as equipment operation. “I grew up on a farm and have always liked equipment, but there is much more to a career than just driving tractors,” he said, adding that he would eventually like to own his own excavating company.

    Steve Ironwing has been in the construction industry for eight years and applied to take the class so he could both increase his value to his employer, Wilder Construction, and become a journeyman to increase his earning potential throughout his career.

    Another Wilder employee, Diana Hendrickson, said that she got into the construction industry because she likes working outdoors. “I am most impressed with the need to be both gentle and strong while operating the machinery. Even though it is large and powerful, it is also incredibly precise once you learn to operate it properly,” the former jewelry salesperson said.

    Although the construction industry still is not viewed by many as a career of choice, students who enroll in apprenticeship or craft training programs can be assured of a career that will encourage their advancement in both skills and earning capacity.

    According to the 2000 Bureau of Labor Statistics, journey-skilled and apprentice-trained workers earn more than people who hold bachelor’s degrees, and earn on a par or higher than those with master’s degrees.

    Sandra J. Olson is executive director of the Construction Industry Training Council, a nationally accredited, state-approved independent training facility dedicated to training, developing and retaining a skilled labor force for the construction industry.

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