Three things are required to train heavy equipment operators: a big spot to dig, some big iron, and a big commitment. A smart group of construction career advocates have come up with a way to meet those three requirements.
Prince William County in northern Virginia says there are about 2,500 unfilled equipment operator jobs in the area right now and when projects on Interstates 66 and 395 begin, the number of unfilled jobs could be as high as 5,000.
To fill those operator positions, the Heavy Equipment Contractors Association, the Prince William County Public Works Department, and the Northern Virginia Community College Workforce Development Division have partnered to ensure training is available to those seeking to enter the career.
The first hurdle to make more training available was an area to do hands-on learning. Ken Garrison, Executive Director of the Heavy Construction Contractors Association, said the program at the community college couldn't provide the training to qualify operators without the space.
"Without the landfill giving us a place where these folks can dig a hole and fill it back in, you're stymied as to how we're going to do this work," said Garrison. In response, the Prince William Board of County supervisors recently authorized an agreement with the community college to allow the county's landfill complex to be used for a heavy equipment-operator training program. "That really is where the county is stepping in and helping the community college."
The second hurdle was equipment to learn on. Robbyn Smith, operations manager for the Heavy Construction Contractors Association, said association members have agreed to lend equipment to the community college for training. Smith said the cost of lending the machines to the community college and transporting the equipment to the landfill represents considerable cost to association members. Moving the machines to and from a site can cost $1,000. Rental fees for the equipment can range between $100 and $250 an hour, depending on the machine. "They're doing all that for free."
Steven Partridge, the Northern Community College Vice President of Workforce Development, said value for the use of the landfill is immeasurable for the community college. "It's huge. How else do you get the real-world experience in northern Virginia where there's not that much land?"
The third hurdle, commitment, was eagerly met. Partridge said the county and the Department of Public Works were in the front of the line to create the partnership. "They stood up early and said, 'Hey, we can do it here.' They've been great partners in this. We're happy to work with them and have that facility available for our use."
Virginia Governor Terry McAullife spoke at a ribbon cutting ceremony to christen the program and said he was ready to see the work begin. "I want to see shovels in the ground. I want to see these Caterpillars moving out here, these backhoes, these bulldozers. This is really important to me."
Prince William County Solid Waste Division Chief Tom Smith said letting the operators train on a couple of cleared acres at the back of the landfill could pay off for the county. "We have the same issues finding heavy equipment operators that the contractors do. This will help us. If we can train people to be heavy equipment operators, maybe we can hire them."
Smith said the two-acre training sites may move around at the 1,000-acre landfill, but the training won't interfere with the work going on there. "They'll be away from the actual main operations where trucks are coming in and out. We'll give them a spot out back where there's not a whole lot of activity."
image: Prince William County