The occupational employment projections from 2004 to 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, predict a 12.2 percent growth for construction equipment operators.
For specific operators of paving, surfacing and tamping equipment, the bureau foresees a 15.6 percent growth.
The problem with these statistics for many in the construction industry, like The Associated General Contractors of Tennessee, is that the figures seem too low. In fact, some in the industry would describe the lack of qualified equipment operators as a “critical shortage.”
The Knoxville, Tenn. -based Power Equipment Company, a full-line equipment distributor serving the entire Tennessee market, and Chattanooga State Technical Community College have come up with a solution for the heavy equipment operator shortage — an eight-week operator training program at the Building and Construction Institute of the Southeast created by Chattanooga State in partnership with construction industry representatives. Power Equipment Company provided more than $600,000 worth of Komatsu machines to be used by the students in the program, which has accreditation from the National Center for Construction Education and Research.
Chattanooga State is the only postsecondary institution in Tennessee and one of only a few in the country to offer this type of training. Plus, said Tim McGhee, director of the Building and Construction Institute at Chattanooga State, it is only “one of three in the eastern United States at a public postsecondary school that is being supported primarily by private industry.”
In addition, at a cost of $646, it is the least expensive tuition for a program of its type in the country, according to McGhee.
Chattanooga State decided to pursue the operator training program based on a need in the area that was voiced by the Associated General Contractors of Tennessee. Chattanooga State outlined the program and approached Power Equipment Company and other dealers in the area requesting support.
“We were the only dealership that provided the equipment,” said Dannie Smith, branch manager of Power Equipment Company’s Chattanooga location.
In addition to equipment, financial support was needed to implement the program.
“We made a commitment to the program,” continued Smith. “That financial commitment was made primarily by Power Equipment Company.”
Smith is quick to point out the role that Komatsu played in acquiring equipment for the program. Power Equipment Company collaborated with Komatsu’s product marketing group at the headquarters in Rolling Meadows, Ill., to come up with an arrangement that would make equipment available to Power Equipment Company, which would then make it available to the operator training program at Chattanooga State.
“They designated equipment and offered financial help,” Smith said. “We buy the equipment and make it available to Chattanooga State.”
The Komatsu models include two PC-200 excavators and two D-31 dozers. Additional models supplied for training are a WA-250PT wheel loader, a WB-146 backhoe and a SK-35 skid steer. Komatsu also provided operator manuals for all of the equipment.
McGhee is grateful for Power Equipment Company backing the program.
“Power Equipment Company is a huge partner,” he said. “We couldn’t have done it without them.”
McGhee also appreciates the support of local contractors, the AGC of Tennessee, and the local laborers’ union, to name a few.
Each 275-hour session of the Heavy Construction Equipment Operator Training Program has space for 12 students. The first class graduated from the program in April, and the second class finished in June. The college initially planned to offer only these two sessions. However, the response and the demand for the program turned out to be greater than imagined, which prompted the college to offer a third session of the program in August.
The operator training program has three phases: Phases I and II occur on campus while Phase III occurs in a borrow pit supplied by East Tennessee Grading Inc. of Chattanooga.
Phase I consists of OSHA training. Phase II includes orientation to the trade, basic employability skills, safety training, basic operating techniques for heavy equipment, laser assisted grading, civil blueprint reading and below grade construction. Phase II also introduces students to earthmoving and its related equipment and includes an introduction to light equipment. Training also includes site preparation, road building, in-ground utilities placement and drainage.
Phase III of the operator training program is hands-on training in the field with a variety of equipment including crawler tractors, excavators, rubber-tire backhoes and scoop loaders, and rubber-tire scoop loaders with fork attachments. Students also learn preventative maintenance and safety precautions for each machine.
When students complete the training, they earn a Tennessee Technology Center Certificate in Heavy Construction Equipment Operating and an NCCER Certificate of Training. These certifications confirm that the graduating operators will have basic to intermediate skills for heavy equipment operation on a variety of machines.
Some students have secured jobs with local contractors after graduating from the program.
“A number of them have been hired following the certification of the program,” Smith said. A committed supporter of the program, East Tennessee Grading, has hired several operators who have finished the program.
Chattanooga State wants prospective employers to know they are sending professionals out to the industry. The college has a resume class so that students can develop a professional resume while the college assists in sending the resumes to companies and setting up interviews.
“It is a professional industry,” McGhee said. “We want to professionalize the whole process.”
McGhee is confident the program will have a fourth session.
“As long as we can maintain a relationship with Power Equipment Company we will run at least three if not four programs. It is market driven, so we don’t want to provide too many [operators],” McGhee said.
Power Equipment Company plans to continue providing equipment for the program.
“I do believe that this training program, based on the success we’ve had, is going to be a long term program because it addresses the needs for heavy equipment operators,” Smith said. “We’re just proud to be a part of it.” CEG