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Training Remains Key For Equipment Operators

Proper training can help the novice machine operator learn the operation fundamentals within the context of what to expect on the construction job site.

Fri January 08, 2016 - National Edition
Jeff Winke

Proper training can help the novice machine operator learn the operation fundamentals within the context of what to expect on the construction job site.
Proper training can help the novice machine operator learn the operation fundamentals within the context of what to expect on the construction job site.

While heavy equipment has become more technologically complex, the machines have, in many respects, become easier to operate. Yet, ease of operation doesn't automatically make a construction equipment operator more productive. That's where skill, experience in the field and the ability to anticipate consequences come into play.

Proper training can help the novice machine operator learn the operation fundamentals within the context of what to expect on the construction job site.

Heavy equipment training is a bit like automobile drivers' education courses. They both should provide the building blocks of knowledge, safety and hands-on experience. Just like driver's ed, the intent of heavy-equipment operator training is to build confidence and skill.

In surveying the options available, construction equipment operator training appears to fall into the following categories:

• Independent operator-training schools

• Union apprentice training programs

• College/technical school programs

• Equipment manufacturer training schools

The consensus in the industry is that any of these options are preferable to relying solely on in-house, on-the-job training. The long-time experienced machine operator within a contractor company may be proficient at the job, but may lack the patience and appreciation for the learning curve that someone new faces. In other words, the old pro may have tremendous machine operating skills, but lack the skill of training others.

For construction equipment operation training, there are many choices available and the close proximity of a school or program may be the best option for selection.

Here are examples found in each category:

Independent Operator-Training Schools

Associated Training Services heavy equipment operator programs (ATS), is based in Sun Prairie, Wis., about 10 mi. (16 km) from Madison, Wis., and located on 80 acres of land. According to the school, students are taught to operate heavy equipment through in-the-seat operation of many types of machines and through classroom instruction.

These training programs are designed to give a person the fundamental skills and knowledge needed to operate such equipment as backhoes, bulldozers, excavators, wheel loaders, scrapers, all-terrain fork lifts, motorgraders and articulated off-road dump trucks. These are the types of machines most common in the industries which hire heavy equipment operators. The ATS programs also include subject matter such as grade reading, grade stakes, laser levels, site plans, site layout, soils and safety.

Union Apprentice Training Programs

The International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) is a diversified trade union that primarily represents operating engineers who work as heavy equipment operators, mechanics and surveyors in the construction industry.

The more than 1,000 full- and part-time instructors at their local unions are the heart of IUOE heavy equipment operator training schools. The instruction takes place at hundreds of facilities, classrooms, shops and labs, and thousands of acres throughout North America where apprentices and journey-level members can learn or advance their skills.

These programs, usually registered with a federal, state or provincial apprenticeship agency, are jointly sponsored by IUOE local unions and area contractors. Through employed apprenticeship a worker can learn a craft and earn an income at the same time. The system is designed to give someone who knows little or nothing about the trade the knowledge to become a journey-level operating engineer.

The average length of an operating engineer apprenticeship is three to four years. During this period, apprentices learn their trade by working with skilled, journey-level operating engineers on actual job sites, and attending related classroom instruction and/or field training at the local union. Many locales are equipped with modern simulators for cranes, excavators, directional boring and motorgraders. And some training centers have enormous, ventilated indoor areas for training when the weather prohibits training outside. Field training can take place on or off the local union's site.

All apprentices must go through a predetermined core curriculum. All apprentices are evaluated using written and practical assessments to prove that they have acquired the requisite knowledge and skills.

College/Technical School Programs

Various community colleges offer construction equipment operation. For instance, Hawkeye Community College located in Waterloo, Iowa, offers an eight-week Construction Equipment Operation program designed to prepare students to become entry-level equipment operators.

According to the college, “students receive the hands-on training needed to operate construction equipment and machines used for earth and materials moving. They will work with wheel loaders, skid steer loaders, dump trucks, flatbed transport trailers, compact excavators, backhoes and track machines. Students also will learn about pre-operational inspection, personal protective equipment, job site safety practices, blueprint reading, construction site preparation and equipment maintenance.”

The Pennsylvania College of Technology located in Williamsport, Pa., offers a heavy construction equipment technology-operator emphasis Associate of Applied Science degree (A.A.S.). Students are said to develop the knowledge and skills needed to safely operate selected heavy construction equipment; use specialized equipment for site layout; perform preventative maintenance; recognize efficient machine operation; estimate project cost; and manage job sites. The associate degree program is completed in two years or less.

ITT Technical Institute offers a bachelor degree program in construction management. This program would likely be of interest to those who are interested in construction but not as machine operators. According to ITT, construction management is the study of the management and technological aspects of residential and commercial construction projects. Construction managers apply management techniques to the planning, design and construction of a project in order to control the time and cost to complete the project and the quality of the construction.

The bachelor degree program in construction management offered by the ITT Technical Institutes is designed to provide a foundation in construction management, construction techniques and legal issues relating to the construction management field. The program is expected to help graduates develop knowledge and skill that can be used to pursue career opportunities in a variety of entry-level positions involving construction estimating, construction safety, construction project management or building code compliance.

Equipment Manufacturer Training Schools

All the major heavy equipment manufacturers offer training to ensure their customers are safely and productively using the machines they purchased.

For example, Caterpillar offers a variety of training options bundled together as “Equipment Training Solutions.” This includes operator training CDs and Caterpillar University online training which were created for entry-level operators, technicians, equipment owners and others looking for basic knowledge on heavy equipment safety, pre-operation maintenance and basic operating procedures.

Caterpillar's two-day instructor-led training on a product family is for groups of four to six and can be conducted at a contractor's site or at one of the Cat Demonstration & Learning Centers. It covers safety (personal, site and machine), walk-around inspections, the cab or operator's compartment, start up/shut down procedures, basic operating procedures based on industry requirements and basic earthmoving fundamentals so an individual can develop skills to operate equipment safely and proficiently.

Cat video simulator training is designed to provide a way for students to gain familiarization and understanding of machine controls and learn proper operating procedures before training on actual machines. A variety of training exercises designed to address each of the skills associated with operating actual machines are represented in different work environments such as construction and mining. By combining video simulated worksite applications and conditions with realistic controls, the simulators are intended to provide hands-on learning in a safe and economical way to enhance traditional operator training programs.

Caterpillar has two demonstration and training centers in the United States with classrooms, indoor demonstration arenas, and outdoor acreage for hands-on learning. The centers are designed to accommodate larger groups.

Training on how to operate heavy equipment is beneficial. Certainly, the machine operator benefits by having greater confidence in their abilities and the employer-contractor benefits by having a more skilled and productive employee.

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