The Next Generation Of Operators

By Lisa Doyle | September 28, 2010

Utilizing a technical college system to train a pool of skilled labor is not a new idea. In Louisiana, vocational colleges have long trained licensed practical nurses, automobile mechanics and administrative assistants. Training for a variety of construction trades, including welding and pipefitting, has also been in the vocational school offering. As the demand for skilled equipment operators and truck drivers grows, so does the need for programs that define these jobs as careers, and prepare students to enter the workforce successfully.

"The shortage (of trained equipment operators) affects our business dramatically," says James D. Madden, of Madden Construction, an asphalt paving contractor in north Louisiana. "There is not a morning that we start our day that we don't have trucks or equipment that will remain idle simply because we lack people to fill those jobs."

Madden also feels that efforts to attract jobs to the area and train workers tend to be directed to other types of work, leaving a void in construction for qualified people. "One of the big misnomers is that what we need is jobs. What we really need are people qualified to fill these jobs. There isn't a contractor in this area that wouldn't hire additional truck drivers, equipment operators and diesel mechanics. We are all facing a labor shortage."

"The shortage stagnates our growth," says Hunt Powell, of Blazer Construction, an oilfield construction contractor that is experiencing a shortage in truck drivers as well as equipment operators. "Our bread and butter is made by operating equipment and trucks. We can't go any further until we have the people.

"With trucks, operating on the highway, you really have to have experienced people. We're short regular personnel, so we certainly don't have any training personnel. They don't have to have an expertise in our line of work. We can take someone with basic knowledge, put them with a mentor and fine tune them to our operations."

Madden, Powell, and a number of other contractors and equipment dealers in the industry have lent their time, expertise and equipment to the Louisiana Community and Technical College System (LTC) to help create what may be the first vocational school program for equipment operators and CDL truck drivers.

Heavy Equipment Operator training will be provided through the Pathways To Construction grant launched by the U.S. Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration to support economic revitalization in Louisiana and Mississippi in the aftermath of recent hurricanes. A portion of the grant funding will be utilized to train heavy equipment operators on bulldozers, front-end loaders, backhoes, and excavators.

Additional funding sources from the LTC have also been dedicated to the creation of a Commercial Vehicle Operation program. Students will be instructed in the operation of heavy dump trucks and heavy equipment transport trucks. At this time, both programs have been offered at no cost to the students.

Training for both courses will be conducted at Camp Minden, an old Louisiana Army Ammunition Plant that was transferred to the state of Louisiana almost two years ago.

According to Charles Strong, director Northwest LTC, two thirds of 21st-century careers are going to be skilled or technical in nature. Louisiana is spending less than 5 percent of its education dollars on training for those careers through vocational programs. "Our dream for this program started over 10 years ago, when we first saw the need for expanding our technical training capabilities. Early on we identified heavy equipment operator, commercial truck driver and diesel mechanic as potential training programs." Strong says the school was unable to finance the startup of these programs until the recent Pathways grant money became available. LTC started programs for heavy equipment operator training and commercial vehicle driver training in January.

"The demand for the program has been almost scary," says Strong. "The classes have just begun and we're overwhelmed with interest."

Strong says that, even with the grants, the programs would not have been possible without the help of the private industry, which has helped the students get some hands-on experience. "We would not have been able to fund the training because of the tremendous expense in terms of purchasing equipment. General Patterson and Louisiana Machinery stepped in with a generous offer to provide training equipment. Nothing takes the place of getting out there and getting seat time on a real machine doing real work."

"One of the problems that we have in this industry is that the landscape has changed. There just isn't a pool of people to draw from, and the students will be oriented in the direction of equipment and maintenance," says Wayne Patterson, vice president Louisiana Machinery. "We were excited about this training program because it gives us an opportunity to impact the training vehicle. It also gets the word out that there is a good living to be made in the construction industry."

Patterson also thinks the program will benefit by offering training that will focus on machine control and guidance, and other new technologies. "Acclimating the next generation of operators to (new technology) will be beneficial for the contractors."

Strong hopes the two new training programs will be a springboard to building a new campus. Some equipment has been used on land set aside for the purpose of building a larger campus. Students have been training there, prepping the site under the guidance of instructors.

The Louisiana Army National Guard has also been indispensable to the new program. They have given LTC access to a 15,000-acre army ammunition plant with miles of semiprivate roadway. The school uses the site for training truck driving students and heavy equipment operator students. Using semi private road allows them to train truck drivers without endangering the public.

"If there is one benefit that we are serving, it's that we are identifying this as a career," says Diane Clark, assistant dean LTC. Clark says these training programs will give future construction workers direction. "Right now you've got kids who drop out of high school, and find their way to a contractor looking for a job, but they don't go to them saying 'I want to be a heavy equipment operator' or 'I want to be a truck operator.' We've got the means to identify these two programs as careers, choices that can be made, rather than just going to the company looking for a job."

Grants fueling these two programs will end on June 30th. In the meantime, Clark is working to get the curriculum written and accepted on a state level.

Students attending the programs come in a variety of levels of experience. Some are new to construction, some have worked as labor and are looking for advancement. Others have experience either operating equipment or driving trucks, and would like to switch careers. Cross training, or experience in both truck driving and equipment operating, will turn these students into workers in high demand — employees capable of driving equipment to the site, and then operating it.

CDL training in the program concentrates on more than driving long hauls. Students learn to use off-road equipment and trailers for equipment delivery. "Students that graduate from truck driving will be able to go either direction," says David Rhodes, assistant dean LTC. "They will be able to go on the road if they choose, and they'll also have the dump trailer and lowboy experience they need to find a job in heavy construction. That will give them more options."

"We're not talking about minimum wage jobs here," says David Madden. "We're talking jobs that will bring in 40, 50, 60 thousand a year."

A future that offers career options is exactly what students are looking for. One student said he's there to move up from the low hourly pay he makes as a construction hand to higher hourly wages and the possibility of benefits. "I have family members who earn good wages without certification. If they're able to earn a good living, then I should be able to bring in high wages too, with certification."

Funding and equipment for the two new construction training programs were procured through the dedicated efforts of our state elected officials, Senator Robert Adley and Representatives Jean Doerge and Billy Montgomery and local industry, Wayne Patterson, Louisiana Machinery; Wayne Price, Shreveport Mack Sales; James Madden, Madden Construction; Gary Brown, Newt Brown Construction; Jimmy and Hunt Powell, Blazer Construction; Lamar Smith, Springhill Land and Timber; Bob Gorman, Tango Transport; Gary Hollingsworth, Hollingsworth Construction; and L. J. Earnest, L. J. Earnest Construction.