Heavy-Equipment Operator Training: Where Are We

“We’re seeing increased numbers of experienced individuals coming back for training,” notes Bill Smith, director of construction training for the International Union of Operating Engineers in Washington, DC. “First, regulations drive them back. In the past five years, the regulations have mandated increased levels of training and certifications, which is good. The other thing is that owners are requiring certain levels of documentation from operators.”

Darrin Drollinger, vice president of technical and safety programs for the Equipment Manufacturers Institute (EMI) in Chicago, IL, agrees. He cites as an example the new OSHA forklift-operator training law, 29 CFR 1910.178(1), which went into effect March 1, 1999, and requires all current operators be trained by December 1, 1999. “OSHA’s forklift rule mandates both in-class and in-the-field training,” says Drollinger. “The operator has to go through a level of certification and testing to show that he or she has a level of understanding to be a safe operator.”

“The industry is cut-and-dried now,” Smith continues, citing another influence on training requirements. “It’s very lean. Contractors need productivity. If a contractor has 50 pieces of equipment on his job, if an operator is going to be an asset, he pretty much better be able to run 49 of them.”

Wendall Pace, professor of heavy equipment at Central Arizona College’s Heavy Equipment Operation Program in Coolidge, AZ, thinks that one of the problems is that operator demand has outdistanced supply. “There’s the building boom, plus all the old-timers who contractors have been depending on are retiring.” He says the Central Arizona College program is experiencing an increase in enrollment and could expand even more if it had the equipment to cover its courses.

Manufacturers have their own views. “Technology is affecting the industry,” says Phil LaGatta, manager of the John Deere Training Center for the Deere Construction Equipment Division in Davenport, IA. “Simplicity, ease of operation, and operator comfort are major factors in the machine design process, and the way you design a machine is going to affect the skill level required of an operator.” He specifically identifies the application of microprocessors to design, along with electronic control units and hydraulics that make possible multifunction controls with sophisticated modulation capabilities and an infinite range of control. Machine movements that once required the maneuvering of several controls can now be completed in many cases with a single lever. LaGatta points out that with these applied designs, an operator can understand the basic operation of one machine, then move to another machine and be fairly productive at the outset. “Contractors will have an operator hop from one machine type to another, which gives them flexibility on the job site instead of depending on specialists who can only run one machine type.”

New technology is not a problem for at least one manufacturer, however. Mike Popovich is technical training manager for the Gradall Company in New Philadelphia, OH, maker of telescopic-boom excavators. He says the company’s clients are one-machine specialists. “All that Gradall operators do is operate Gradalls. When they’re not operating their Gradalls, they’re greasing them, doing maintenance. Some of the old-timers can pick up a dime with a bucket.”

Gradall relies on its distributors for whatever training operators require. “We have a very good network of distributors who’ve been doing this for years,” notes Popovich. “But I would say the training doesn’t go far beyond getting a brief run-through of what the equipment does and how to operate it safely, mainly because most Gradall operators are probably better than many of the people who would train them. Typically what happens is municipalities—which are probably where two-thirds of all the machines are sold—sell an old machine to an owner-operator whose own machine has worn out. Then the municipality comes to us and orders new ones. Everyone in the chain is very experienced. Very rarely do they require any real training. You can talk safety until you’re blue in the face, but then the operator has to take it from there. Typically dealers do a demo and the operator gets to work. He might be pretty inefficient for the first week, but with more experience and the specialization he has on the equipment, pretty soon he’ll be pretty darn good at it.” Even Popovich admits, however, that Gradall will probably open a training center in time, following the trend developing in the industry.

Clinics offered by dealers include walk-arounds of the machines, demonstrations of their features, and the fundamentals of servicing.

The Swanee, GA, training center at Daewoo’s North American headquarters develops materials to train trainers for Daewoo dealers, which provide the company’s operator training. “The premise is that we bring the trainers to the center and any company people who require training,” explains John Schuetz, manager of publications and training. The training center also develops supplemental materials that dealers can order to use in training or for sales and service personnel. Both company personnel and customer operators who train at the center have a chance for hands-on experience with the equipment. “We walk the operators around the machines and show them the benefits of the equipment,” says Schuetz, “then we give them some stick time, demonstrating the methods to operate the equipment safely.”

Schuetz has produced some 40 booklets to supplement training. The booklets vary from introductions to equipment to more detailed technical information that includes equipment specifications and dimensions. currently Daewoo is concentrating on technical training for maintenance, troubleshooting, and repair, but Schuetz looks forward to more emphasis on operator training.

Cloyce Lamb, manager of sales and service training for Komatsu International American Company in Norcross, GA, thinks the move toward corporate training centers is influenced by liability. “If you teach people how to slot-doze in a coal mine or how to push scrappers and there’s an accident, you’re liable if you don’t cover everything.” In that vein, Lamb suggests that the companies who have led the way in training tend to manufacture larger, more complicated equipment. “You pay $1 million for a haul truck that is hooked up to a GPS monitoring system, and you have to have a highly trained operator.”

Having said that, Lamb admits Komatsu doesn’t do application-specific operator training. The company confines itself to demonstrating controls and functions, and this is handled at the distributor level. “Our dealers go out and show the operator how to operate the machine and whatever else he needs to know to become familiar with the equipment. If he’s had an old piece of equipment and gets a new 155 dozer, for example, it will bear no resemblance to what he’s used to; the new one will be much easier to operate.”

Ease of operation aside, training is still an issue. At John Deere’s training center in Iowa, LaGatta supervises a multisegment training operation for both new customers and experienced operators. As new products come on-line, the center develops off-the-shelf, product-specific videotapes that vary in the amount of sales and operating information they feature. The tapes can be ordered through the company or dealers and are routinely provided in company-sponsored training, which also falls under LaGatta’s umbrella. Typically the amount of dealer-supplied training is negotiated in the equipment purchase contract. “Dealers have the opportunity to offer customers clinics, especially those purchasing fleets of equipment,” explains LaGatta. “The clinics include walk-arounds of the machines, demonstration of their features, and the fundamentals of servicing. Each participant has a chance to get on-board the machine and understand how it works compared with the machine he is used to operating. The support, in terms of trainers and training materials, comes from the training center, but our dealers are also very capable. Many are former operators themselves. Many of the larger dealers have their own training instructors.”

John Deere maintains two demonstration sites—one in Coal Valley, IL, which operates all year, and one in Sacaton, AZ, which operates on an as-needed basis. One of the purposes of the Illinois site is to train dealers and company personnel. “We concentrate on our four core products: backhoes, excavators, loaders, and four-wheel-drive endloaders,” LaGatta explains. “We have half-day sessions where we talk about what’s unique about all the products, and we have a half day of operation.” Typically, attendees will be dealer personnel or new company employees, but this program can also be tailored to a particular agency or company. Over the course of this year, for example, the United States Army, which recently bought a fleet of tractors, will send personnel to the Deere Training Center at the Illinois demonstration site for a one-week training module. “This is typical of a specially tailored course,” LaGatta points out. “These operators and technicians need to have technical and operations knowledge of the equipment because they might be operating in remote areas where they will have to know how to handle situations like adjustments, calibration, hose changes, preventive maintenance, and repairs.”

When a contractor takes delivery of a John Deere machine, he will be introduced to the operating features of the equipment by a variety of dealer personnel, including the salespeople, a certified customer-support advisor, or a dealer training instructor. While there is also the option of sending operators to the training center’s demonstration site to work with Deere’s staff of professional operators, LaGatta suggests that it’s more effective to have site-based training so instructors can go into more site-specific operation and instruction, reflecting the Deere philosophy that training should replicate the conditions under which the equipment will be used. “Operators must understand how the machine should be set up. For example, if you’re doing slope work using one of our all-wheel-drive graders, tire pressure and counterweighing are very important. You’re trying to maintain the right grade, hold the machine, and avoid bouncing. Knowing how to adjust the machine can be the difference between good operation and great operation.” As with courses offered at the training center, the company charges a nominal fee for these field courses unless it is negotiated as part of the sales contract.

Training for John Deere rental accounts is also handled through dealers. The dealers who service these accounts allocate at least one staff member to the job of calling quarterly on rental accounts to check on training needs. “Our national rental houses will ask for annual training,” says LaGatta. “Their staff has to know basic operation, safety checks, machine setup, service requirements and intervals, and features that can be emphasized for their customers’ benefit. Dealer and rental-house representatives can go out and survey the job site and show the best way to configure the equipment and operate it for the best productivity.” John Deere also employs a customer-support person at the training center in Iowa who provides safety training, machine orientations, and other enhancements that can help customers satisfy their safety and OSHA-related responsibilities.

No matter how extensive—and regardless of cost—LaGatta suggests that operator training has become more important than ever. “This is a robust market. Contractors don’t want to turn down work; they want to continue to grow their business. But instead of people with 10 to 15 years of experience, they might hire operators who only have 10 to 15 days of experience. This increases the need for training. For operators who seek a challenge, the time is right. It’s not uncommon to see people graduating their way through machines.”

For the operator on the move to heavier equipment, Caterpillar‘s corporate training center in Edwards, IL, outside Peoria, might be just the ticket. Courses at the Caterpillar center run $600 a day and typically run for two and a half days, room and board and transportation not included. The Caterpillar centers are open to individuals. (The second center is outside Green Valley, AZ, south of Tucson.) Caterpillar Training Administrator Bill Miller says that most often employers pay tuition, but some motivated individuals train at their own expense. (The company also offers the same courses through its dealers and will soon be expanding the dealer-sponsored programs.) The Caterpillar curriculum was created in conjunction with instructional experts at the University of Illinois, is geared for easy learning for students with less than a traditional education background, and is based on performance evaluation. “We tell them, we show them. Then they practice and show us,” says Miller. Four possible ratings indicate a participant’s level of competence. A number-one rating is an excellent operator. A number-two rating is something less than excellent but very proficient. A person who achieves a number-three level is someone who acknowledged the training but didn’t quite measure up, and Miller describes a number-four person as “someone who shouldn’t have been there.” Certification of performance competence requires achievement of level one or two. Level-one and -two students receive a certificate and belt buckle engraved with their certification number.

Miller says Caterpillar encourages companies that utilize production teams to send all members of a team to school. “We like to have those loader operators attend for certification on loaders and then stay another two and a half days and attend as a truck driver so they can walk a mile in the other guy’s shoes. By the same token, we like to have their team members attend as truck drivers and get certified, then stay two and a half days for indoctrination in wheel loaders. A loader operator quite commonly passes certification on a loader and a truck as well, although the truck driver might come up short on the loader end. But we want to show why it’s critical that he function as a team member and how this affects the bottom line and safety.

“Oftentimes the truck drivers don’t measure up to be certified as a loader operator, but we do acknowledge they attended the additional training. You might think a person paying $600 a day who is not certified on the second product would be unhappy, but that isn’t the case. Attending the second course shortens their learning cycle. It gives them a good indoctrination of what is expected of a production wheel-loader operator and it’s a challenge for the person to get better, to broaden his ability from that of a truck driver to a wheel-loader operator. They’re exposed to the proper way to do things, and they make excellent backup loader operators.”

Although Caterpillar has always supported new machine sales with a delivery person who visits the customer and indoctrinates operators in the new purchase, any further training falls under Miller’s Caterpillar Equipment Training. The company adopted this policy after it determined that unless training follows an established, step-by-step curriculum, learning is scattered. “You might get through to one person,” says Miller, “but not 20. Our personnel used to go out on a return visit and be exposed to 20 to 30 operators. You don’t spend much individual time with anyone.” By contrast, Caterpillar’s current program, established in 1995, is based on a class size of a maximum of four students per instructor. Students spend six hours in the classroom learning about what the equipment was designed for, all safety procedures, how to properly take care of their work area and keep it free of debris, how to keep windows and mirrors clean, and the functions of the cab and its controls. A demonstration follows, including an in-depth walk-around, where students are taught to check for loose bolts, cracked welds, leaking hoses, or oil leaks. “We’re training to protect the man or woman on the machine,” says Miller. “We teach him or her (30 women are among the 1,100 program participants so far) how to function the equipment properly and hopefully elevate his or her technique to be more productive.” The rest of the two and a half days is spent in the seat, putting machine and operator through their paces.

Because of the demand for training (lead time to sign up for a center course is a minimum of 30 days), Caterpillar is currently certifying its dealer-demonstrators as instructors to offer the same courses at the dealer level. Dealer instructors attend a train-the-trainer program conducted by the University of Illinois, where they learn how to utilize the curriculum after which they undergo a week of proficiency training. All training materials will still be supplied by Caterpillar Equipment Training, and all files will be housed at the Illinois training center, which will issue the certifications. “I like to think our program is unique,” remarks Miller. “I don’t know of anybody else who offers what we do. The beauty of it is that contractors and miners are starting to realize that if a person goes through certification, as employers they will know what he or she has been exposed to.”

Although private, for-profit operator training through third parties is scarce to the point of nonexistent (as opposed to safety training, which is available through a number of companies), individuals interested in heavy-equipment-operator training have opportunities in programs offered by organizations affiliated with the industry.

Central Arizona College‘s Heavy-Equipment Operation Program is geared to prepare students for either a one-year certificate or a two-year applied-science degree. Professor Pace says students come from a variety of backgrounds; some have no experience in heavy equipment, some have on-the-job training, and some are seasoned operators looking for extra training. “Most of our students are doing this in anticipation of employment,” says Pace. Program participants are not required to be enrolled in either a certificate or degree program and may take individual courses, although Pace suggests that the college would prefer that students at least commit to a certificate. “We’ve had students with a good aptitude for heavy equipment and experience from being on a farm, for example. They come here, take three or four courses, and find a job and think they don’t need to come back. But the certificate is very helpful in the long run. One of our students from New Mexico struggled a bit with his first semester. Then he got his certificate the second semester. As he was driving home, he stopped by a power company and asked if they needed operators. They asked if he’d any training. He said yes, he’d gotten his certificate. They ran him through a few tests and hired him on the spot.”

Among the courses Pace likes to see his students take are a grade stake and surveying class and an equipment maintenance class. Tuition for the program for Arizona residents is $400 a semester; for out-of-state students, it jumps to $3,000.

The International Union of Operating Engineers, which represents well over 340,000 equipment operators, offers apprenticeship and journeyman programs through its locals in the US. The programs are registered with the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training and either follow the bureau’s guidelines or are developed by state apprenticeship committees. The programs are offered at 95 training centers across the country. The union also offers journeyman training for operators already in the field.

Canada has a slightly different program, according to Angela Bennett, marketing administrator for the Operating Engineers Training Institute in Morrisburg, ON, where local provinces have more autonomy compared to the US. The Morrisburg program is open to nonunion members as long as they are not in competition with the union members. Students can also be subsidized through government programs. Training Manager Ray Munroe says the institute, located on a 40-ac. site, takes a serious look at industry trends and may revise its curriculum as often as every three years.

“The US apprenticeship program is usually a three-year, sometimes four-year, program with a minimum of 144 classroom hours,” explains Bill Smith. Six-thousand hours of joint classroom and hands-on experience are required for graduation, which results in a diploma graduating participants from apprentice to journeyman. The hands-on experience is arranged through collective-bargaining agreements with contractors. Candidates move through the three years attending classes and actually doing practical testing to pass off on each piece of equipment.

“Usually it works out that participants are working full-time and going to class, depending on how the local program they’re involved in is set up,” says Smith. “Some will go to night school during the week and work for contractors during the day. Others will commit to a week or two at the training site and complete the classroom segment, as well as get the required hands-on work. Others will just do some night training on their own and every three or four months be called in to leave their job for a week to spend 40 hours at the training center where they get their hands-on practical testing and pass off on the equipment. During this time, the contractor has the option of replacing them with another apprentice, and they go right back to the contractor when they’re done with the week’s schooling.”

Similar to the participants in the Central Arizona College Heavy-Equipment Operation Program, apprenticeship participants range from those with zero background in heavy equipment to years of experience but no formal training. Experience, however, isn’t a factor, though an ability to understand and grasp knowledge and mechanically put things together is important, according to Smith. “You’ve got to be able to think with your brain and work with your hands.” Perhaps one of the most important considerations, beyond the thoroughness of the training, is that the apprenticeship program is subsidized by central contributions to the union fund, so participants aren’t paying out of pocket but contribute to the program through fund contributions once they’re on the job.

Smith agrees with other industry observers that nowadays an operator’s best bet is to be able to run all kinds of equipment. “That’s what we try to train for—a universal operator who can pretty much jump from machine to machine.”

Demand for the apprenticeship program varies; some locals take 50 applicants a year out of a field of 400. Others don’t meet their quota. The application process involves a physical, a test, and an interview. Union locals are the best source of information.

Along with the popularity of the apprenticeship program, Smith says journeyman upgrade programs have seen a hundredfold increase over the past few years. “The old-timers are coming back for OSHA 10-hour training because they can’t get on the job site without the OSHA certification card in their pocket,” he notes. Typically, union representatives take OSHA train-the-trainer courses at one of 12 OSHA-affiliated training centers across the country, then set up shop at the local union hall. According to Ernest Thompson, specialist at the OSHA Office of Training and Education in Des Plaines, IL, the same option is open to contractors who want to train their own employees. “Many contractors, as well as consultants, are taking the OSHA courses so they can do the training and give out the OSHA cards.” Thompson cautions, however, that employers must be prepared to keep accurate records of any employees they certify. He also notes that part of OSHA’s strategic goals is that all newly issued OSHA standards will specify a training component. “It’s the employer’s responsibility to provide the training, whether they do it in-house or through a third party,” says Thompson. “Most of the requirements are for on-the-job training. As long as the training meets the requirements and the employer ensures that his employees have whatever training they need, we are not going to quibble about the source.”

A case in point is the new federal standards for forklift operators. Estimates are that between 1.1 million and 2 million forklift operators will have to be trained in the new standard by the December 1, 1999 deadline. As an aid to employers, EMI is voluntarily developing educational materials on forklift operation and safety. “The industry feels it’s in everyone’s best interest to pool our resources and create a generic program with the goal of reducing accidents and injuries,” says Darrin Drollinger. The materials EMI is developing will cover in-class and on-the-job training and will be available through the organization and participating EMI member companies and their distributors. Manufacturers will modify the educational material by adding their brand-specific information and instruction on items such as controls and warning labels.

Drollinger notes that the 14 current EMI manuals have been particularly useful for seasoned operators. “The forklift rule, for example, requires that you have to have a level of refresher training. A 30-year veteran might not be very receptive to being taught how to do a job he’s already doing. The generic manuals are abbreviated, usually between 30 and 50 pages long. A veteran operator can look at the manual and remember that it’s important to do such and such a thing when he’s dealing with a certain set of circumstances.”

The bottom line for equipment operators, as seen from both the contractor and operator perspective, comes from Smith, who says simply, “Operators have to be able to do what they say they can do.”