Program Created to Expose More Women to Construction Work

A new program lets women try their hands on virtual excavators, road graders, bulldozers and welding equipment.

📅   Thu February 04, 2016 - National Edition


The project part of a joint effort between Iowa Workforce Development, IowaWORKS and Hawkeye Community College, which secured a Walmart Foundation Grant of $75,000 to expose low-income Iowa women, as well as minorities, to jobs in construction.
The project part of a joint effort between Iowa Workforce Development, IowaWORKS and Hawkeye Community College, which secured a Walmart Foundation Grant of $75,000 to expose low-income Iowa women, as well as minorities, to jobs in construction.

WATERLOO, Iowa (AP) — Stevie Medina might have felt as if she were building a new world.

She may yet.

The seat she occupied rumbled and jerked, as she worked the controls of a virtual excavator.

"It does shake," she said, half-smiling as she maneuvered levers on either side of her chair. Focusing on a video screen as one might while playing a video game, Medina clawed into a mound of dirt on a high-definition construction site. A flick of the "joy stick" on her left, and she lifted the dirt from the pile. She nudged the stick leftward, and the excavator's "arm" moved toward a waiting dump truck. The scoopful of dirt now over the truck, Medina pushed forward on the right-hand lever, flicked the stick in her left hand and the dirt fell precisely into the truck bed.

The monitor kept score — of how much earth Medina moved from one place to another, and how much damage she might have inflicted on any equipment in a real situation. There also was a matter of efficiency — Medina had three minutes to move as much dirt as she could.

At the end of the session, a dollar figure appeared to show how much money she would earn for her virtual employer on the job. The total $611 popped up on the screen.

"I did make $750 once before, but this is one of the best," she said of her experience on the machine.

On the other side of the ledger, she left about $49 in damage.

"I bumped into the truck one time," she said.

Lesson learned.

The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (http://bit.ly/1nwKsV1 ) reports that more than 30 women showed up at the IowaWORKS office in Waterloo during the week of Jan. 11-15 to try their hands on virtual excavators, road graders, bulldozers and welding equipment — all set up in a simulator trailer set up adjacent to the building. The trailer housed six video screens for the heavy equipment, with a "protective" headgear allowing users to try out welding.

It was part of a joint effort between Iowa Workforce Development, IowaWORKS and Hawkeye Community College, which secured a Walmart Foundation Grant of $75,000 to expose low-income Iowa women, as well as minorities, to jobs in construction.

The grant covers the costs of bringing a specialized Hawkeye Community College construction equipment simulator/trailer along with a general instructor and assistant to each of Iowa's 15 IowaWORKS offices in 2016.

"It's supposed to replicate real-life environment but in a safe and not-intimidating environment," Srdjan Golub, associate director HCC business and community education, said of the simulators. "The controls are similar to what you'd find in different pieces of equipment. They will tell you how well you're doing, so next time around you can improve. They can upload a scenario that reflects a real project and have different scenarios and tells you how well you're doing."

The simulator is part of "Six Step Workshops" to allow women in the PROMISE JOBS program the opportunity to learn about non-traditional construction jobs and experience hands-on construction equipment operation simulation, although the trailer was open to the general public.

"We're trying to get people into fields in construction, welding and truck driving," said Kenny Rotz, an instructor with Hawkeye Community College who was on hand to guide users through their experiences.

They're all high-paying fields that are starting to feel serious hunger for new help, he said.

"You have a lot of people hitting retirement now," Rotz said. "And there are opportunities for people who can come right in and make some good money."

A general operator can start at $20 an hour, he said.

Some who took turns on the computerized equipment probably uncovered talents they didn't know they possessed, Rotz said.

"Once you get a feel for the controls, they're often great at it," he said. "We had a guy who was on the bulldozer who never ran one, but he ran it perfect. Another guy got on the excavator and had a little harder time with that."

Tiffany Batchelor tried out a back hoe.

Her first session didn't go too well — she "lost" $25,160.

"I think over time I'll get better," she said. "It takes some getting used to the controls; I've never done anything like this before."

Batchelor said the experience got her thinking about a possible career in construction.

"I've always found the machines and everything kind of fascinating and wondered how they all worked and everything," she said. "It's neat to be able to do something like this."

It was a learning experience, Batchelor said.

The key lesson: "It's a lot harder than it looks," Batchelor said. "But it's fun."

If a participant's interest was strong enough to take another step, there was a 10-day training program available, which would provide some basic certification, said Ronee Slagle, IWD district manager.

"You can try the simulator and see if you like it and then try the 10-day training," she said.

Further training also is available — with a potential for full-tuition coverage for eligible applicants — that could lead to internships and full-time employment, she said.

"Construction has changed so much," Slagle said. "Many people think of it as digging a hole. This is operating backhoes, and we're even including fork truck drivers. One of our larger employers wanted to see if they'd like to experience that."

The next 10-day course is available starting March 28, with other 10-day sessions set for May and June, Golub said.

"I do know we had individuals graduate from there become employed," he said.

All participants in the 10-day training get certified with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and many graduates have landed jobs as flaggers. Some went on to drive trucks, Golub said.

"There's another option we do , put in for CDL training, which makes them a lot more marketable, and a few of them become equipment operators," he said.

It starts in the simulator trailer, Slagle said.

In fact, the trailer got a trial run for that week in Waterloo, It will make stops across the state, Slagle said.