Training: For the Love of the Job

Over the course of last year, we’ve occasionally received news about winners of Case Construction Equipment Triple Threat Rodeos across the United States and Canada, regional competitions that qualified 60 top operators for a showdown in the North American Championship at this year’s World of Concrete in Las Vegas.

The more we thought about it, the more we wondered what kind of background and training propelled these operators into the winner’s circle. To find out, we tracked down three of the regional winners, along with this year’s grand champion, and gave them all a chance to tell their stories. In a culture that values speed and efficiency, where automation is the name of the game and relationships between management and field crews can be impersonal and contractual, what we discovered was a deeply satisfying and productive way of learning and working that under economic and other pressures is, unfortunately, fast fading.

Thirty-year veteran Eugene Bland, an operator at Alan Rothberg and Son, a utility contractor in Middlesex, NJ, won the competition at Trico Equipment in Freehold, NJ. Eddy Goetz, 28-year-old owner of Turf Design Inc., a landscaping company in Olathe, KS, recorded the fourth-best score in the regional competitions, and Garrett Speer had the highest score heading into Las Vegas, despite the fact that as manager of the Excavating Division at Dick Construction Inc. in Garden City, KS, he doesn’t get much machine time anymore. The grand prize went to Octavio Miranda, 37, who took home a Dodge pickup for himself and a new Case TR270 compact track loader and trailer for his employer, L.M. Enterprises in Hamilton, ON.

All three regional winners got their introduction to earthmoving equipment in a family business and went on to sharpen their skills with years on the job, sometimes at the hand of a mentor. Miranda was introduced to dirtmoving by his father, who convinced him to hire on as a laborer at a contractor where he worked as a supervisor. None of the four winners received any formal training, either through the companies they’ve worked at or from equipment manufacturers, and none currently operates automated machines equipped with positioning devices or machine control. As a group they cited drive, ambition, and a sense of responsibility as critical to their success.

All four see helping junior operators as part of the job, so much so that grand-prize winner Miranda dreams of opening his own operator training school someday. They all agreed that new operators don’t ask enough questions, can be too slow to admit when they’re wrong and too fast to brag about how much they know, especially if what they know turns out to have been learned in a classroom.

“Classroom,” in fact, turns out to be a dirty word, a symbol of training that minimizes machine time and emphasizes coursework over real-world experience. “Nowadays everybody’s looking for schooling,” says Miranda. “Employers want you to go through a course, get your certificate and your license and then they’ll put you in basic training. What they should be doing is just the opposite-hire people who maybe don’t have much schooling but can do the job, then put them through school. The problem these days is guys don’t get the chance to prove what they can do.” Which is another way of saying there’s a difference between knowing how to operate a machine and how to use it to get the results you want, skills that require hours on the job watching how things are done, making mistakes, and being exposed to all kinds of unpredictable situations.

Garrett Speer started in his father’s backhoe business-“I’d go out with him and drive on the trencher”-and uses the same one-on-one approach when he’s breaking in a new operator. “It’s no different than raising kids. You’re going to take your kid under your arm and teach them everything you know. I tell a guy who wants to learn, “˜Hop in and let’s go for a ride for a couple of hours.'” Typically Garrett finds new operators from among laborers who’ve shown an interest in getting out of the trenches or otherwise displayed aptitude. “We start them on something small to give them the feel of operating equipment and get them over the initial excitement. Then maybe we’ll have them move snow or do a little dirt work out in the open. Eventually, we work them through the different types of equipment because I like everyone cross-trained.”

“I tell my guys, “˜When you’re an operator, you’ve got to function on multiple levels. “Your eyes have to be seeing everything that’s going on, your brain’s got to be going 100 miles an hour, and you have to be smart enough to be able to relate back to previous situations so you don’t make mistakes. And if do make a mistake, don’t beat yourself up. Just do it right the next time.’ We try to evolve together and that seems to be the key to success.”

Eugene Bland spent his summer weekends on the job with his father who let him practice on the rubber-tire backhoe. By the time he graduated from high school, he knew dirtmoving was where he wanted to be. “I used to sit in the front of the backhoe and steer. My father was in the backseat, and I watched everything he did. Then when he let me start running it, I knew if I didn’t do the job right with the machine, I’d get handed the shovel, which was a great incentive to do it right the first time.

“A good operator has to be able to visualize the finished product. You have drive and be interested to be able to make the machine do what you want it to do.” After 30 years, Bland still leaves for work 45 minutes early so he can hang out with the guys, check oil levels and grease the equipment-“It’s second nature.”

Ever since he was old enough to drive, Eddy Goetz has been running construction equipment. He followed his uncles and brothers into the business and now that he owns his own company, he considers hands-on training the only way to go. “Either my partner or myself are always on the job site, critiquing operators, telling them how they could do the job better. If you take the time to personally train people to what you want and expect, you’ll get a better operator,” he says. “We always start a new hire off as a general laborer, then put them on a machine. Problem solving is critical, also recognizing potentially difficult situations. Anybody can go out and dig a hole, but the hard part is getting the hole level at the bottom and digging around utilities. We start our instruction with the manuals and with safety regulations because we want our people working on the ground to be comfortable.”

“Being a good operator is a matter of finesse, says Miranda. “You’ve got to love it. I started out as a laborer, and then one of the operators let me play with a backhoe. If I could remember that man’s name, I would thank him a lot. Then one day my dad came around the corner, saw me on the equipment and said, “˜Now you stay on that machine and keep digging.’ No one taught me, no one told me anything. I just had the feeling that I could do it. The way I think about it, God gave me a gift. But what was important was that I got the opportunity to use it. My father used to tell me, “˜Try not to use your hands and arms. Use your mind instead.’ That’s my philosophy. I say, “˜Give me a few minutes and I can figure out this machine.’ I remember my dad would throw a rock or two at me if I hit something or did something wrong, which means I made sure I didn’t do it wrong again.”

Miranda says he really enjoys passing on what he knows. “A lot of people don’t like to do that because they’re scared the other person’s going to take their job. But that’s the way I got where I am, by learning from other people. A book tells you one way to do it, but when you’re on a job, it’s entirely different.”

All this said, Bland worries that there isn’t enough time anymore for operators to share their expertise. “Little by little, people are coming into our industry who don’t really know how to do anything more than be a laborer, and it’s hard for them to get the experience to move up, because nobody has the time to teach them.” But Garrett thinks this is hogwash. “Yes, it’s going to be a little slower with somebody who’s inexperienced. But we’ve still got five other guys on the job site. If there’s a problem we can remove the new guy, get done what has to be done, then put him back on it again. The people I learned with agree a hundred percent that real time on the job is still the way to do it. And we’ve raised a lot of good operators.”

What keeps them going? Bland says he likes that he’s never in the same place for long, that he’s always meeting new people and no two jobs are the same. “You have to think constructively-what’s the best way for me to do this job without running into any difficulties and still make it as easy as I can for myself.” Goetz says he likes the results. “One day there’s nothing there; the next day you’re building a pond.”

And Miranda? “I like challenges. That’s what I’m looking for, more difficult challenges.”