A pilot program to train a new generation of construction equipment operators recently graduated its first students from a branch of Jefferson State Community College near Birmingham, Ala.
The initiative was designed by more than 20 construction businesses and industries across the central part of the state, in partnership with the Alabama Community College System.
The program helps students ages 18 and older in obtaining nationally recognized certifications for heavy equipment operators. In doing so, it addresses the state's need for more certified construction and heavy equipment workers for infrastructure projects statewide.
The inaugural class of 12 students graduated April 9 from the community college's Chilton-Clanton campus, according to the Alabama Political Reporter.
"Alabama's community colleges across the state are at the table with business and industry leaders to identify solutions to the state's workforce needs," said Alabama Community College System Chancellor Jimmy H. Baker. "The Heavy Equipment Operator program at Jefferson State is a prime example of identifying a need and working with industry to address it in a timely manner through a short-term training solution yielding qualified, certified students who are ready to work on day one."
The 12-week training model helps students in obtaining three nationally recognized certifications for heavy equipment operators while they train both inside a classroom and on job sites with area employers. The first graduating class had been funded by the Craft Training Board of Alabama to complete the program.
"Working alongside our business and industry partners creates positive outcomes for everyone and we're eager to expand on the success of this pilot program," said Jefferson State President Keith Brown. "The Heavy Equipment Operator Program will increase the number of skilled operators to help meet industry demands and it will help individuals acquire valuable jobs to make a better life for themselves and their families."
The Alabama Political Reporter reported that new equipment operators take up to two weeks of on-the-job training to learn basic operations before being able to learn company specific skills. With industry leaders designing the curriculum, the Heavy Equipment Operator program was customized to ensure students completing the program would enter the job market with a mastery of basic safety and operation skills in addition to eight hours of "seat time," or operation time, with the equipment.
Classes are currently offered on Tuesday and Thursday evenings with hands-on training on Saturdays and Sundays to provide needed flexibility for individuals looking to enter the construction industry. Jefferson State's next Heavy Equipment Operator class will begin on May 25.
The curriculum is based on the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) Soft Skills Training Certification, Wheeled Loader Certification and Wheeled Excavator Certification. Industry feedback on the program design ensures that students who complete the program have the skills needed for immediate employment as equipment operators.
"As Alabama continues to develop the training needed for all jobs, both with academic and technical training, the trade skills gap continues to grow. As one generation begins to enter the retirement age, another generation is not trained to fill those shoes," said Chilton County Industrial Development Board Executive Director Whitney Barlow. "To address this gap, leaders must work together to find creative and expansive solutions to meet the needs of employers across the state. The pilot program at Jefferson State is a prime example of an innovative solution to meet local industry needs."
According to Alabama Political Reporter, the state has more than 2,800 construction job openings each year, with a need for more than 600,000 heavy equipment operators nationwide through December 2022. Operating engineers and other construction equipment operators had a median wage of $21.03 per hour in the Birmingham area in 2019.
Across Alabama, the state's community college system is working with business and industry to develop unique training opportunities for students to enter in-demand, well-paying jobs across multiple sectors, including manufacturing, construction, healthcare and information technology.
Jefferson State's Heavy Equipment Operator program is one of many efforts to ensure classroom learning and skills training prepares students for what they will experience as members of the labor force.
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