A successful partnership between the construction industry and a regional college is helping to train the skilled heavy equipment operators of tomorrow.
Back in April 2007, fifteen apprenticeship students successfully completed the first ever Heavy Equipment Operator program at the Conestoga College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Guelph, ON. Capital Paving Inc., one of that initial program’s principal industry supporters, made a significant contribution to its success by providing both industry expertise and a practice ground for students to gain essential machine time.
The program has grown significantly in scope and size since its initial launch, with twenty students recently completing the College's 2008/2009 expanded program. What has not changed however is the value of partnership, with the comments made in 2007 by Stephen Speers, Chair of the School of Trades and Apprenticeship, just as relevant today: "The industry-education partnership worked very well, because the participating local firms were generous with making available equipment for in-college and on-site training, in addition to furnishing the site for skills application on actual equipment such as backhoes, excavators, bulldozers and tractor loaders. The Heavy Equipment Operator program was undertaken in consultation and co-operation with local industry and professional associations to meet identified skills needs of immediate and lasting value to employers."
Rob Munro, project manager for Capital Paving, explains that volunteers from the Conestoga Heavy Construction Association were part of a consortium formed to provide input on the program’s design and changing industry needs. "As far as possible, our company recruits workers locally and skilled equipment operators are always in demand. It is certainly helpful to us if graduates of programs such as Conestoga’s Heavy Equipment Operator have the right skills and enough experience to begin working safely and effectively in real job situations." Brenda Gilmore, program manager for the School of Trades & Apprenticeship at Conestoga College, adds that the program consortium group registers all the students in the Heavy Equipment Operator program as apprentices in Tractor Loader Backhoe, Dozer and Excavator. This allows the students to complete their apprenticeship schooling at Conestoga College in all three apprenticeships and then complete their required hours on the job site with an employer. In addition to Capital Paving, Consortium members for the program include Gateman-Milloy Inc., H. Kerr Construction Limited, Lafarge Paving & Construction Ltd., Steed and Evans Limited, Rooney Bros. Gradall Service Limited and the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.
Program instructor Paul Pacheco has found that students consists mostly of school leavers, with a few older students in their mid twenties and the occasional mature student wishing to improve or expand existing skill sets: "The course starts in the fall and focuses on three machines; tractor loader backhoe, excavator and dozer. Course content includes one hundred and fifty hours of seat time on all machine types, together with fifteen weeks in class during the winter. On site at Capital Paving’s forty-five acre practice ground, exercises for tractor loader backhoe include rough grading, truck loading, trench and pier excavation, general excavation and flat bed loading, while work with the dozer includes sub grading, stripping, rough and finish grade and trench backfill. For students, one of the most testing dozer exercises involves the construction of a "parking lot" at a one per cent grade to assess operators’ fine grading skills. Elsewhere on the practice ground, excavator training exercises include trenching, loading trucks, backfill, excavating footings, manholes and catch basins as well as the correct lifting and placement of drainage components and culvert installation. A float is also on site for the duration of the program, allowing students to practice equipment loading and unloading."
Pacheco adds out that the scope of the course extends significantly beyond machine operation: "The shop at the college provides learning for basic machine maintenance, which is a good fit with daily site machine inspection and reporting. In addition to machine operation and maintenance, we have added a number of program modules which are designed to help graduates who wish to start a construction business of their own. Supplementary course topics include the fundamentals of business practice, the economics of machine ownership and job estimating. To further improve students’ knowledge of site situations they may encounter, we also teach the basics of surveying and setting out, soil properties and applied math. Naturally, safety is an essential component of the course, both in class and on site, so I am pleased to add that there were no reported incidents during a program which has involved twenty student operators learning on ten pieces of equipment over a sixteen week period."
As a footnote on program costs, Pacheco estimates that Conestoga’s Heavy Equipment Operator costs each student less than $6,000 in tuition for the thirty four week program, with a government subsidy and industry support all helping to keep that number as low as possible. The latter includes the supply of mobile equipment at preferred rental rates by several local distributors including Nortrax, Toromont, Strongco and Advance Equipment, while Con Cast Pipe has donated precast concrete catch basins.