As Skilled Operators Age and Retire, Companies Look to Training the Next Generation

Training for TomorrowWhen watching a jobsite from afar, the equipment moves about almost as if it were rehearsed. Loaders roll into piles of dirt, while excavators glide through the ground and empty big buckets into trucks. What seems simple enough as a spectator took those crewmembers years to learn and perfect. Mastering the skills of a well-trained operator isn’t something done overnight and there’s always room to grow. And with operators aging and retiring, there’s an urgency to get new crews thoroughly trained and ready to roll onto the jobsite.
“Many contractors are now starting to experience what has been predicted for years — there’s a lack of well-trained equipment operators,” says Rick Longstaff, President of VISTA Training Inc. “Many great operators are retiring and gone are the days of hiring someone who grew up using equipment on a farm. This will affect productivity and safety unless contractors establish a formal, structured training plan for each of the equipment operator positions.”

Aside from the simple mentality of “the show must go on,” equipment training ensures operators are equipped with the skills to safely work, while maintaining jobsite efficiency and machine integrity. An expensive piece of equipment doesn’t offer much value without a well-trained operator in the seat.

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“The safety of the operator, other employees and the public is the most important benefit,” says John Klabacka, President of Associated Training Services (ATS). “Second, efficiency and productivity increases with operators who are trained properly. Third, equipment maintenance costs are reduced with operators who understand proper preventative maintenance procedures and practice them. Finally, all of the above have a positive influence on the viability of an organization.”

Training for TomorrowSetting a Curriculum

When beginning to train a new operator, it’s important to set aside the necessary time for instruction as well as figure out a curriculum that works best for the person being trained. Both Klabacka and Longstaff note that a mix of classroom time and practical training in the equipment yields the best results.

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“Each individual is different, and therefore, discretion on the employer’s part is important when designing a training schedule for entry-level operators,” says Klabacka. “A typical training schedule would last from two to four weeks with a combination of classroom/written material and supervised equipment operation in the field. Field tasks would generally start with the more basic machines and tasks. For example, cleanup with a skid steer would be a good place to start.”

Training programs may be offered through schools such as ATS, union and non-union apprenticeships, as well as some equipment manufacturers and dealers. Depending upon where someone seeks training, the curriculum or method of training may differ.

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In-the-classroom training allows new operators the chance to learn basic skills and become comfortable with a machine’s controls before time behind the wheel. Aside from lessons, written tests for machine comprehension may also be given — further instilling the material.

Software training, such as online training or equipment simulators, is also a popular option. It offers a convenient option to training that’s available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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“You don’t need to own or have access to equipment via a school or employer,” says Longstaff. “Kids of any age, insurance agents and others who work in jobs servicing the construction industry can take advantage of online learning to acquire basic knowledge of the various types of equipment and related safety issues.”
Simulator training offers trainees the ability to become familiar with machine controls and takes a building-block approach in achieving tasks — working from basic to more complex ones. Another advantage is that the software assesses an operator’s performance and can give data on both their strengths and weaknesses.

“A number of contractors have successfully used these simulators to identify operator candidates with the greatest natural aptitude, prior to hiring them,” says Longstaff. “This enables trainers to focus their time, money and manpower into hiring and training those individuals with the best natural operating ability. In settings like underground utility work, where operators are working around gas lines and fiber-optic cables, having the safest, most proficient operators at the controls of your equipment is critically important.”

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Finally, practical hands-on instruction is a crucial part of equipment training. After becoming comfortable through classroom lessons or online training (or both), new operators benefit from getting to apply their knowledge by operating the actual machines.  

“It’s important to consider how adults learn most effectively,” says Longstaff. “By engaging them in three dimensions — hearing, seeing and doing [experience] — trainees are better able to develop the knowledge, skill and, most importantly, the attitude to be safe, productive operators.”

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Training for TomorrowNot Just for Newbies

When thinking about training, it’s easy to assume it’s just for new operators — but that’s not the case. Training helps “seasoned” workers learn new skills, as well as avoid becoming too comfortable in the cab.
“Everyone can always learn something new,” explains Longstaff. “There are so many talented and creative people in the construction industry being asked to perform feats that are sometimes mundane and sometimes close to miracles. Someone designs something on paper and the industry figures out ways to make it happen. If no formal transfer of knowledge is planned for, what is learned on one job can be quickly lost as operators move on to the next challenge. In addition to reminding seasoned workers about basic safety ideas — which help to stamp out complacency — refresher courses enable that transfer of knowledge.”

Continuing equipment education isn’t just beneficial for the operator, but for the company as a whole. An operator can take back these new skills to deliver better productivity and educate others.

“Continuing education and training is very useful and valuable to both employees and employers,” adds Klabacka. “As we all know, two minds are better than one. Education and training bring those other minds into the picture to communicate alternative methods, new techniques and new technologies that may improve a person’s knowledge and skills. Continuing education should take place as much as possible; at least once a year is a good rule of thumb.”

As the equipment operators in the construction industry continue to age and retire, it’s vital to fill those positions with quality trained professionals to keep work going safely and efficiently. With the correct blend of classroom and online training, combined with hands-on equipment practice, companies can be sure they have the right person for the job.

Pam Kleineke is Managing Editor of Utility Contractor