Zachary Bowen was sitting in front of three huge Vortex simulator screens excavating a narrow trench when he accidentally dislodged the bucket from the excavating machine’s arm.
As three fellow students taking Virginia’s first ever two-month-long heavy machinery college class watched, Bowen struggled unsuccessfully to reconnect the bucket.
“It was pretty frustrating,” the 21-year-old said, who wished he could have seen in reality how the bucket re-attached since he couldn’t reconnect it on the simulator.
Bowen, of Gore, is one of 25 students taking a Workforce Solutions class at Lord Fairfax Community College’s Vint Hill site in Warrenton, which was developed as a tool to spark interest in careers as heavy equipment operators.
The students from 12 different locales have been taking the LFCC course since fall. It guarantees them a job interview after successfully completing the course in an industry desperate to hire heavy machinery operators with a starting annual salary of around $43,000.
The unique course – the only one of its kind in Virginia – was developed with help from some of the 170 construction companies with 39,000 employees who make up Virginia’s Heavy Construction Contractor’s Association.
A $463,686 grant from the Virginia Community College System funded the purchase of two $130,000 simulators plus 16 modules and eight simulated exercises.
A simulator, which rotates and vibrates while digging and loading, allows students to understand the coordination of eyes, hands and feet and the tactical sense needed, said Ken Garrison, executive director of the contractor’s association.
“One student fell into a hole while operating the excavator but whenever someone has the wrong response there is nothing harmful about it,” he said.
The simulator also can test reaction to unexpected events, like blown hydraulics or a laborer unexpectedly walking in front of the working machine.
The shortage of replacement operators makes it a well-paid but shrinking trade.
“This is a big problem we face,” said Ken Pracht, safety director for Perry Engineering Co. in Winchester. “We have an aging workforce and we see very few young operators stepping into their shoes (when they retire). It is difficult to find experienced heavy equipment operators to hire.”
The need is immediate said Guy Curtis, director of marketing for the college’s Workforce Solutions programs.
“The Virginia Department of Transportation’s construction projects have an immediate need for 2,500 operators,” Curtis said.
The simulators mimic the operation of a wheel loader that loads trucks with loose material, like dirt or work site materials, and a hydraulic excavator to dig holes – machines used to build roads, bridges and buildings.
Ian Anderson, 19, graduated from Front Royal’s Warren County High School in 2016 and soon found “I am not a white collar worker. I don’t like working in a cubicle or in a store dealing with people.”
“I like the idea of getting a job in the construction industry because I like working with my hands,” said Anderson.
As for the simulator, “It’s harder than it looks. You have to use both hands or one of them to control the equipment,” he said. “It’s a fun course and the instructor really wants to see you succeed.”
One of two women in the classes, Linda Edwards, 55, of Fredericksburg, works for an engineering company testing materials and soil compaction, which is “getting rough on my body. Operating equipment, you work a lot longer in life.”
“It’s nice to use a simulator instead of going out to work and breaking someone’s equipment while learning to do something,” she said. “This is the next step in my career. More women should get into this because it is still a booming business.”
Pracht said Perry Engineering employs about 70 heavy equipment operators and believes the simulator and course “is a good first step but I expect they will need some additional training on a real machine.”
As a safety manager, Pracht says, “Work sites are so dynamic, constantly changing. So many things come into the picture, not just the machine, but other things that come into a constantly changing environment.”
The simulator measures a student’s efficiency, the time it takes to do the job, how many trucks were loaded and how much was loaded.
Proficiency of 80 percent or better is needed to earn the college’s Workforce Solutions certificate of completion and an NCCER (National Center for Construction Education and Research) certification – credentials companies value.
“This allows them to understand the industry before they go to work,” said Garrison, who has eight construction companies committed to giving graduates interviews, with the first class graduating Jan. 27.
“It’s hard, they will go to work when it is dark outside and work hard every day,” Garrison said. “Before this there was no way to prove if they had an interest in the industry when you were hiring them.”
“It’s a win-win for employers and workers in this area,” said Curtis. “It helps individuals who are not able to make ends meet and the course allows them to fast track to a better paying job. It helps the economy grow as well as makes our communities better.”
“It’s real life even though it’s like a video game,” said Bowen, who will use the course to help in his quest to become a more versatile mechanic. “You end up digging dirt everywhere and you get frustrated and then it takes longer to complete the exercise.”
The students attend weekend or weeknight classes. Their tuition was more than $2,700 each – some subsidized by a construction company, some paid out of pocket and with a grant.
The Shenandoah Valley and Northern Virginia were selected for the first-time grant “because this is where the need is greatest,” said Carlene Hurdle, Workforce Development Coordinator with the college and also with the Fauquier County Department of Economic Development.
Hurdle expects once the pilot program proves successful, “it will be spread across the state.”