To Train or Not to Train: It’s No Longer a Question

If you’re considering a heavy-equipment operator training program for your employees, the first questions to ask yourself are whom do you want to train, why, and what return do you expect for the time and money you invest?

“In my opinion, no more than two-thirds of the dollars people invest in equipment around the world are actually returning on that investment,” says Dave Haney, manager of Caterpillar Equipment Training in Peoria, IL. “The rest of it is product that is not operated efficiently or with much awareness of how safely it’s being operated.”

“A lot of companies want to train their people,” notes Phil LaGatta of John Deere Construction Division in Davenport, IA, “but it depends on what their business looks like. It seems they’re either too busy to send somebody to training or they’re not busy enough to keep that person on staff.” Yet as Haney suggests, employers who aren’t providing some kind of employee training are selling themselves and their employees short.

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“There is going to be a steady increase in the importance of operator and service training in the future,” declares Tom Ihringer, product safety manager for the Bobcat Company in West Fargo, ND. “Our customers are seeing value added to their operation through training, and this includes more productivity and efficiency as well as safety.”

Once you establish that training is a good idea, the next challenge is how to go about it. Do you want to tackle it in-house, send your employees off to a factory training center, or have professionals come in and do the job for you? Currently, operator training runs a wide gamut–from familiarization demonstrations provided by factory representatives when new equipment is delivered, to advanced operator courses offered at Caterpillar’s training centers in Illinois and Arizona, to three-year apprenticeship programs developed at local chapters of industry associations. Likewise, the mode of instruction runs from manufacturer-sponsored videotapes and manuals, to classroom instruction, to time in the seat. Once you figure out which employees you’re going to train and why, the next step is to evaluate what types of training programs best suit your needs.

Safety and Consistency

Komatsu Utility Corporation, based in Vernon Hills, IL, goes beyond the new-equipment introduction provided by dealers and factory reps to produce its own safety training videos that are available to its distributors and customers on an as-needed basis to complement the operator manuals accompanying its machines.

Bobcat’s training kits for skid-steers, excavators, tool carriers, and attachments offer how-to workshops with videos and hands-on training.

Likewise, capitalizing on the common availability of video-playback equipment, Bobcat has developed a series of extended training courses for companies who want to train their own employees. The courses include a generic safety manual, a product-specific videocassette presentation, a course administrator’s guide, five course handbooks, and five attendance certificates for operator training. Courses are available for excavators, skid-steer loaders, telescopic tool carriers, and attachments. The courses, which include a workshop segment and hands-on training, are available in English and Spanish. Bobcat has also produced two safety training courses: one for rental operations and one for skid-steer loaders.

“As a manufacturer, we have taken a proactive approach to operator training, to help our customer-employers who want to meet OSHA requirements for training, who want additional training for multiple operators, or who experience high turnover,” states Ihringer. “Our goal is to make this information available at a reasonable price and to provide consistency in the training message. The idea is that a training course an employer presents today will be the same as he presented last year and the year before that. We offer the training courses with every machine we sell and stress their availability both in our operating manuals and throughout the new machine delivery process.” Check the company’s Web site ( for a complete list of available courses.

Vista Training Inc., an independent training provider based in Burlington, WI, maintains a self-study library of video programs on safety and equipment operation that it pairs with a mix of instruction materials to provide trainer-led courses on a range of equipment and related topics. Each course consists of five modules with an associated workbook and tests. The company specializes in customized onsite training and suggests that materials from its self-study library are effective as prerequisites or postcourse updates to their instructor-assisted programs. Vista’s president, Rick Longstaff, reports that two of the company’s most popular self-study courses include “Hydraulic Fundamentals for Mobile Construction Equipment” and “Electrical Fundamentals for Mobile Construction Equipment.” Vista also offers Internet-based training; check for a demonstration. Courses are also available in train-the-trainer versions for companies who want the option of doing some training themselves.

For companies that are already set up to do their own training and are interested in a program of long-term employee development, the National Center for Construction Education (NCCER) in Gainesville, FL, has developed course curricula based on input from major equipment manufacturers and construction firms. The courses are textbook-based, include all-important hands-on training, and require a three- to four-year commitment. The materials are used by nationwide NCCER affiliates. The affiliates present the programs, and NCCER provides certification and record-recording. Call 888/622-3720 for referral to local programs.

Manufacturer-Sponsored Training Course

The training coordinator/instructor reviews the safety/pre-operation checklist for a motor grader.

Companies that aren’t equipped to do their own training can take advantage of a range of opportunities offered by equipment manufacturers. For example, Liebherr Construction Equipment of Newport News, VA, offers two-day, no-cost, product-specific training to its customers in a program that aims to bring all of a company’s operators up to speed on the manufacturer’s equipment. “If an operator can’t learn a machine in two days, we’re all in trouble,” remarks Wilfried Wotke, general manager of Liebherr product support. “We designate a demonstration-operator to do the training in the field, and if the customer requires more than a week to get all its people trained, we would probably ask them to participate in the costs of providing an instructor.”

Liebherr’s courses are arranged around an “operator training checklist,” which acts as an outline of sessions that must be marked off as participants proceed through training, beginning with what Wotke describes as 10 must-do procedures followed by 10 to be avoided. “We tie it to the maintenance,” explains Wotke, “because most operators also do the daily maintenance. First they do a walk-around of the machine, where we instruct them on checking fuel and oil levels, and only then do they get in the cab. We explain the machine’s function with it standing still, then we fire it up and go into low-speed mode. They learn how to slow travel the machine, then how to make turns and counterrotate.”

Liebherr has not produced any instructional videos because it prefers to rely on human interaction. Instructors teach from the instruction and safety manuals the company provides with its equipment. “If I put myself into a customer’s position,” says Wotke, “I would make use of any tool given by the manufacturer to make my machine as efficient as possible.”

Building on the model it designed to train service mechanics, Gradall Industries of New Philadelphia, OH, expects to be offering courses on operating its excavators in 2003, along with train-the-trainer courses for companies wishing to train their own people. Courses will be offered at the Gradall factory in New Philadelphia, but salespeople and customer-service personnel will be equipped to offer onsite training at an employer’s workplace. The courses are planned to be a day and a half long. Approximately one half day is spent in the classroom and the rest of the time in the seat. Video and other instructional materials will be supplied by Gradall. Mike Popovich, Gradall’s director of training, is in the process of developing a manual and videotape that can be purchased separately from the course, along with a train-the-trainer module. Announcements of current service training classes and future operator training sessions are available at the company’s Web site (

In the future, equipment simulators will play a major role in training.

Popovich thinks the future trend is toward more in-field training rather than factory-centered courses. “People don’t really want to come back to the factory for training,” observes Popovich. “They prefer to have a representative come in and do the training on location or perhaps have regional courses. We still offer factory schools, but I think in the long run, this is only one of a number of ways training will be done.” Gradall has already offered a prototype of its operator course in conjunction with the Pennsylvania chapter of the International Union of Operating Engineers.

Almost two years ago, John Deere Construction Equipment developed a basic operator-training program that it hosts at its two demonstration sites in Coal Valley, IL, and in Sacaton, AZ, south of Phoenix. The two-and-a-half-day course is open to private contractors, government agencies, and individuals. One half day is spent in the classroom, and the rest of the time is in the seat. Classes are limited to 12 participants. Each person selects one piece of equipment to focus on, choosing from loader backhoes, excavators, wheel loaders, crawler tractors, and motor graders, but participants also get a chance to operate the remaining equipment. “They do walk-arounds on the equipment for safety and maintenance, we show them a video, and then they might have six or eight stations outdoors with tasks to do,” describes Bob Miller, who runs the demonstration sites where the courses are held. The cost is $650 for the motor-grader course; the others are $550 each. Four courses are offered at the Arizona site during January and February, and a similar number of courses are scheduled for the summer months at the Illinois site.

Miller says that although the operation was originally established because of requests from larger private contractors, so far his best customers have been utility companies and government agencies, including the US Army and the National Forest Service. “When the operators come to us,” relates Miller, “they don’t have much time operating, and when they leave here, we don’t consider them skilled, but the important thing is they understand the basics and can build on them. Instead of learning on the job and developing bad habits, if they come here, they start knowing the right way to operate the equipment, and after two or three years, as they develop their manual dexterity, they can become very efficient.”

Taking a cue from the trend Popovich observes, the John Deere centers also have some leeway in offering programs at client locations. Recently, for example, two demonstrator-operators spent four days training 20 operators for the City of Philadelphia’s suburban water department. The cost for this kind of service is $4,000 per program, with 25 students maximum. Miller stresses that the opportunity to supply this customized service is extremely limited because the centers function as an arm of customer service rather than as a profit center for the company. Check the Web site ( for further information on training and training materials.

For employers who want the training brought to them, Vista Training offers a variety of services. The company operates on the philosophy that many employers would prefer to have their operators trained on the equipment they will be using and under the circumstances in which they’ll be using it. Vista trainers provide short (usually day-and-a-half) combined classroom and hands-on training sessions on a variety of heavy equipment as well as safety-oriented courses. “Third-party training eliminates any problems that might occur with in-house training,” points out Vista’s Longstaff, “where personal relationships can sometimes get in the way.”

Vista also offers a service of precourse and postcourse assessment, evaluating individual employees’ skill levels. Employers can build their own customized programs in conjunction with Vista specialists, opting for classroom only or classroom plus hands-on and certification at completion. Longstaff notes that many employers appreciate the individualized competency program because it provides a solid ground for demonstrating proficiency as a basis for determining compensation. Costs run from $195 per person for the basic classroom program to a little less than $400, depending on whether or not you opt for testing and certification.

Bob Skidmore, assistant maintenance manager for the Kane County (IL) Division of Transportation, reports that Vista solved a number of the agency’s training problems. “One of my directed tasks was to improve productivity. Doing the training in-house turned out to be too complex. I worked with Vista for about a month and a half, during which we went through the different jobs that we perform, and I gave them the operator and repair manuals for the various pieces of equipment we use. The one thing about our operation is that our operators do a variety of work, and it was important that this be reflected in the training. The first year we had between 25 and 30 employees go through Vista’s program, which required a lot of time on our part, but we found it was very valuable. A lot of our experienced operators improved their skills and learned new tricks on the machines, which improved their efficiency and the quality of their work. At the opposite extreme, people who had not really run a specific machine before got a very good basic class and can now use the equipment on a limited basis.”

Participants trained on the wheel loader, grader, combination loader, backhoe, and mowing tractor, and they also took a module on construction-zone safety. Skidmore now uses Vista annually for regular training, and the company provides seasonal half-day snowplow training as well. “The benefits of this kind of training greatly outweigh the cost in terms of long-term production and safety,” he comments. “If I were a private contractor–and it was my money and my employees–I would definitely invest in training to improve the quality of the work and also improve profitability.”

Training for Career Enhancement and Long-Term Development

Almost everyone agrees that developing a skilled and knowledgeable heavy-equipment operator requires a combination of training and experience. The multiyear programs developed by NCCER are based on this assumption, as are the apprenticeship programs developed by the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) and the Associated General Contractors (AGC) of America. Both organizations offer training programs through their local chapters, and both are designed to provide well-rounded expertise in construction management and operator competency. In Arizona, the AGC local has partnered with Central Arizona College to develop a six-semester, three-year program that includes 160 hours of classroom instruction annually and a total of 6,000 hours of on-the-job training that covers safety and housekeeping, equipment and preventative maintenance, grade checking, as well as excavator, front-end loader, scraper, bulldozer, grader, and specialized equipment operation. The cost is $1,500 per apprentice per year, paid by the contractor.

Sundt Construction, headquartered in Tempe, AZ, currently has eight apprentices in the program, which has been up and running for two years. According to Dave Muehlbauer, director of training who helped put the program together, the company was interested because it has had good success with a carpentry apprenticeship program over the past six years. “We found that those who participated became better carpenters, but at the same time we realized we had a gap in our work force when it came to supervisors,” relates Muehlbauer. “So the hope was that some of our apprentices would become supervisors, and this has happened. Our goal is the same in the case of the equipment-operator apprenticeship. Operators will learn the right way to use all of our equipment, as well as the safe way and the most productive way.”

Muehlbauer also emphasizes that any company opting for an apprenticeship program must commit to making sure apprentices are able to meet their program requirements. The program in which Sundt’s apprenticeships participate requires that they attend classes one weekend a month. The company pays for the Friday they are absent from work, and the apprentices agree to dedicate one Saturday a month to school.

“A lot of the reason we decided on this approach, rather than having someone come in to train the entire work force, is that we wanted a more in-depth approach,” explains Muehlbauer. “It takes time to learn this. You don’t become a skilled and knowledgeable operator going someplace for a weekend or a week. It takes time and coaching and mentoring.” In relation to if this is something a small or medium-size company could manage, he suggests that the opportunity is open to any company with two craftspeople. “You are not only investing in your current work force but also in your future supervision. You go into a program like this with the knowledge that not 100% of the people who start the program will complete it, and not all of them are going to stay with you. But those who do are going to become real assets to your company.”

For individual operators who are interested in sharpening their skills but not in a formal apprenticeship program, community and technical colleges, such as Central Arizona College, offer associate degree programs and, if space is available, the opportunity to take individual classes. Local chapters of AGC, the American Bar Association, and other trade associations, along with the operators union, can often provide information on technical and vocational college programs affiliated with their organizations. The IUOE has its own three-year apprenticeship and journeyman programs offered at its training centers around the country. Classroom and hands-on training are part of the curriculum. The program is subsidized by central contributions to the union fund, and although participants don’t pay out of pocket, they contribute back to the program through fund contributions once they complete their training. Union locals are the best source of information about the program.

And although it might take hours of experience to build a competent operator, Caterpillar has taken the approach that a little advanced training can help the process along. “Some time ago we began hearing our customers talk about equipment utilization and the difficulty of keeping and retaining operators. This led us to develop a training program targeted at experienced operators,” recalls Haney of Caterpillar. “We put together our program, which we market to the end users of our products, based on the confidence that an investment in this kind of training is going to produce a tremendous return.

“In this industry, the human element is fundamental,” he continues. “Currently we do not have a nationally established set of standards with respect to equipment operation–what a person has to know to operate a machine correctly and safely–nor do we have a form of rating the proficiency of individual operators. So there’s a huge gap, and we in the industry are being called on to try to do something about it.” Caterpillar offers two-and-a-half-day courses on its individual products type at its two US training centers in Edwards, IL, and Green Valley, AZ (a third center in Alabama specializes in forestry applications). The curriculum also includes addenda to the basic product-based information in such topics as stockpile and waste-material handling, as well as a five-day course for motor graders. The tuition for each two-and-a-half-day segment is $1,500, and Haney says many operators come for a week and combine two courses. Participants are required to meet predetermined course standards. “But,” he adds, “some people go to the course and don’t achieve certification.” So far, about 3,000 participants have completed the certification process since the program began in 1996.

Distributors such as Whayne Supply in Louisville, KY, also send their employees for training, where they often combine the hands-on work at the centers with the train-the-trainer course Caterpillar developed with the University of Illinois.

“I was a little skeptical at first,” admits Whayne Supply Marketing Manager Edwin Downer, “but what we’re finding is that most operators have never really been exposed to any formal training. The cost of our course is the same as at the center. Let’s say someone works for you 2,000 hours a year and you’re going to amortize the cost of sending him to school over three years. That’s 25 cents an hour to invest in someone running equipment that probably costs you $150 an hour. It takes less than 1% productivity improvement to pay for the course.” Caterpillar also offers ad hoc onsite training for customers on request.

As part of Caterpillar’s commitment to training, Haney participated in the establishment of the NCCER in Gainesville, and company operators helped developed NCCER’s curriculum. Haney suggests, however, that although the three-year heavy-equipment operator program that the center developed serves as an excellent basis for long-range training, the industry also has short-term requirements that need to be addressed. In his view, training to fulfill these requirements could form the basis for what he calls a “hard-hitting, tightly focused program” that might involve a modified time commitment.

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Franklin Career Services, headquartered in Louisville, KY, is taking a step in this direction. The company offers 10-hour-a-day, 21-day heavy-equipment operator training that certifies participants as entry-level operators. The curriculum is state-certified, and students receive approximately 200 hours of hands-on training. The price is steep, however: just under $10,000. A recruiter for the school reports that many of its students are awaiting job offers from companies that require documented formal training.

What the Future Holds

Regarding future industry trends, Haney predicts that equipment simulators will play a major role in training. Larger companies will supply their own simulators–Caterpillar already has an off-highway truck simulator for its mining customers–and dealers will have simulators they can deploy on a fixed or mobile basis, while independent simulator centers across the country will sell time on their equipment. Finally, asserts Haney, individual contractors are going to have to assume more responsibility for training. “As a business, an employer should be responsible for developing his or her own personnel. And if there is no system in place to help supply qualified individuals, employers need to take responsibility for developing a training program. In the future we will see a rapid rise in training organizations that understand this need, and we intend to be the leader in this effort.”