By Karen M. Scally
Terri Olson is fed up with the state of equipment operator training.
For years, the co-owner of OE Construction, a site development contractor in Golden, Colorado, has heard the complaints throughout the industry about the lack of heavy equipment operators and how the tried and true tactics for recruiting them no longer work.
And she doesn’t want to listen to any more excuses.
“Most people say, ‘Look, Terri, we’ve always done it this way,’” Olson says. “And I’m really tired of that.”
So Olson is on a mission to change the landscape of equipment operator training, by reimagining the methods of old and harnessing the power of technology and data.
“At the end of the day, somebody has to step up,” Olson says. “And I happen to be in a position where I could … make it happen.”
Olson, who spent 25 years in tech training for business software, has co-owned OE Construction with her son Chris since 2006. The firm does about $20 million annually in heavy civil, underground utility, and excavating work mainly in Colorado but also out of state. Recent projects include earthwork and underground utility work at the Denver Zoo and site development for a new school in the Denver area.
The company prides itself on its forward thinking and early adopter mentality, implementing Trimble machine control nearly a decade ago, as well as incorporating VisionLink fleet management software throughout their heavy equipment fleet.
But having the latest technology on their heavy iron isn’t enough to help locate and retain equipment operators.
“From day one, even 14 years ago, finding qualified operators was always a mission and a challenge,” Olson says. “Believe it or not, even if you have the best-ever culture and company, they’ll jump for 50 cents an hour. So the turnover rate can be high.”
Drawing from her training background, Olson decided to put those skills to work by opening Next Gen Equipment Training earlier this year.
Unearthing a New Way Forward
Do we really need to tell a 25-year-old, I’m sorry, but a couple years out, you know, just wait and pay your dues, and we might stick you in a machine someday? Some of them are going to pick a different field the next day.”— Terri Olson, owner of Next Gen Equipment Training
For a long time, it’s been clear to Olson — and many others in the field, including Gary James, the lead instructor at Next Gen — that the old way of equipment operator training wasn’t working. For five years, James owned a civil construction company in Sarasota, Florida, but the lack of operators was a huge problem.
“I was running out of employees,” James says. “I couldn’t find, you know, five of myself that had the same drive as I did. So I ended up folding my company in Florida.”
Historically, on-the-job training has been the go-to method for equipment operators throughout the industry. Employees interested in heavy equipment operation often start as a construction laborer and must work their way up. Take the pipe laying industry for example, Olson says, where a typical route to become an equipment operator is to first serve as an on-the-ground laborer or ditch digger, followed by a pipe layer or topman, and then finally moving into actual operation.
“Do we really need to tell a 25-year-old, I’m sorry, but a couple years out, you know, just wait and pay your dues, and we might stick you in a machine someday?” Olson says. “Some of them are going to pick a different field the next day. They just aren’t interested.”
It’s also difficult to find the right opportunities to safely and productively train on construction sites, which are normally intensely busy, crowded spaces.
“There’s nobody that has enough time to train on site,” James says.
More formalized programs exist, through apprenticeships at a labor union or from certification at a trade school. However, both require time and money. And the new generation of workers entering the skilled trades have little of both.
Olson says that from the outset of hiring and training, equipment operators need to be shown the bigger picture about the greater possibilities within the construction field.
“The goal is from a retention standpoint, we want to show those folks, especially the younger ones, you have a career path,” Olson says. “Let’s retain our employees instead of them jumping ship every other month. If we don’t invest in these folks, if we don’t give them a path, we’re all in trouble.”
And Olson says the key to visualizing that path: Virtual reality.
That’s where Next Gen is different, starting with VR simulators to provide well-rounded training through a cohesive curriculum that unites technology and real-world experience. She believes that extensive and customized use of heavy equipment simulators serving as the foundation for safe, effective operator training — coupled with practical instruction to develop long-term skills — will turn the tide in growth and retention.
“So not only are we training operators, but let’s teach them about setting grade, let’s teach them about reading a civil plan,” she says.
Next Gen offers CAT and CM Labs Vortex simulators, elearning workstations, and classrooms at its 3,500-square-foot building outside Denver. It also offers hands-on drone and heavy equipment training. The VR simulators scenarios can offer training for excavators, dozers, backhoe loaders, motor graders, wheel loaders, off-road and articulated haul trucks, and cranes.
By partnering with private businesses, schools, and organizations focused on workforce development, including the Associated General Contractors and the National Underground Contractors Association, Olson says Next Gen can serve as the model for the future of equipment operator training.
“Our mission is to change the world — at least here in our state of Colorado — and we’re starting to see it happen across the globe,” she says. “I think we can really make some inroads here not only for our civil company, but most importantly, in the rest of the sector.”
Why Simulators’ Time is Now
Simulators have been on the Olsons’ radar at OE Construction for awhile. Terri Olson says her son and co-owner Chris immediately recognized their potential to better train equipment operators.
“He’s very inclined to grab technology if we can afford it and implement it,” Olson says. “He wanted to go with simulators three years ago.”
But Olson wanted to thoroughly research how to incorporate simulators into equipment operator training. Now, she is convinced.
Though heavy equipment simulators have been around for more than 15 years, the technology continues to develop into a more realistic training experience, says James, the lead instructor at Next Gen.
“One of the one of the biggest myths that I have come across is that it doesn’t feel the same,” James says. “I posted [a video] of myself blindfolded, fluidly loading a truck, which means my butt can feel the seat moving the entire time.”
Part of the challenge is just altering the perceptions.
“Our biggest successes are when we get somebody in the seat,” Olson says. “Generally within 15 minutes, a whole metamorphosis takes place.”
James has recorded a series of videos aimed at disproving common misconceptions related to simulators that he posts on social media. But he says that can only go so far.
“If you have not tried simulation, we can discuss it all day on LinkedIn and Instagram and Facebook, but until you come sit in the seat, all of my words don’t justify what these things actually do,” he says.
Olson and James say the industry is nearing a tipping point for increased simulator adoption because even recreationally, simulator use is becoming more mainstream.
Recently, Microsoft reintroduced its Flight Simulator game, with vivid graphics and real-time streaming of cloud-based mapping data. Its powerful and compelling ability to simulate real-life scenarios is providing a glimpse into broader simulated experiences to come, from logistics to event planning.
There are also signs within the construction industry that simulation will become more pervasive. United Rentals is partnering with Serious Labs in a pilot program with VR simulators for MEWPs and telehandlers at its United Academy training centers. The International Powered Access Federation is developing training modules for enhanced certification or operator license renewal using VR simulators. Contractors are even buying their own. And outside the U.S., simulator use is increasing, including in New Zealand, where equipment operators are training on simulators for site development of the country’s largest urban redevelopment.
“It does help build acceptance,” Olson says.
If you have not tried simulation, we can discuss it all day on LinkedIn and Instagram and Facebook, but until you come sit in the seat, all of my words don’t justify what these things actually do.”— Gary James, lead instructor at Next Gen Equipment Training
Blended Learning Offers Better ROI
With the construction industry set in its ways for decades, Olson acknowledges that overhauling equipment operator training will not be easy.
“The biggest challenge here is changing the mindset of many operators and also even safety managers and business owners in this civil contracting world,” she says.
Contractors need to understand the long-term savings that the blended learning model of simulation plus hand-on training can bring, Olson says.
Simulator Training – Real Results
For example, OE Construction often sent employees out of state for training, which could be very expensive, ranging from $3,000-5,000, and time consuming, taking six months to a year.
A faster, cheaper option is training at the dealer, but that’s typically held in a group of about five to eight people, offering limited seat time.
“A lot of it is show and tell, and there’s no real curriculum,” Olson says. “It’s pretty basic stuff.”
Training equipment operators on-the-job is also not effective, she says.
“Doing it in the field real time is very difficult, and it’s not as safe as we would hope in many cases,” Olson says.
Comparing Different Types of Training
Also, training only on actual heavy equipment can cause mistraining, undertraining, or developing bad habits, which can lead to costly damage or poor performance.
“If people aren’t operating the equipment properly, it can have huge consequences,” Olson says. “We have our own horror stories to tell about untrained or mistrained individuals. Rental companies would tell you the same thing. A lot of it’s hidden damage in a way.”
It can be something as simple as not being in the right gear, which could tear up the dozer’s undercarriage. James says equipment operators need to be clearly taught how significant the effects of that can be.
”If you back in third gear for a week, you’ve probably cost Ms. Terri $20,000 to $30,000 in undercarriage damage,” James says. “But you won’t see it until next year when you go to repair all that.”
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Using a simulator allows the trainer to better track operator mistakes — without damage to the equipment or risk to the individual — and know where improvements need to be made.
For example, if the operator is taught to select the correct gear to provide the desired ground speed at a reduced engine RPM without overloading, Olson says studies have shown a 5-15% increase in fuel efficiency at 75% power and 15-30% efficiency at 50% power.
So what can trainees expect at Next Gen?
A typical session is four hours with simulation time and class-room instruction. Trainees learn equipment safety as well, including pre- and post-operation checks and preventative maintenance tips.
Simulation time is then followed by actual equipment operation to activate and engage muscle memory, James says. Hands-on operation can be done with Next Gen’s equipment or at the client’s location.
“I have seen new brand-new operators come in and within four hours, I would hire these gentlemen and these ladies,” James says. “On site, I would see the same results in weeks, if not months.”
Half-day equipment operator training costs $500 at Next Gen, with group discounts available based on the number of training sessions purchased. Companies can also buy blocks of time on the simulators and specify how and when the training sessions are conducted.
Considering that James knows of accidents that cost between $30,000 to $50,000 in parts alone, not even the time that it takes to make the repairs, the price of simulation-based training seems like quite the bargain. Unfortunately, contractors have grown accustomed to that scale of loss as just part of the job.
“So if we could take a company’s throw-away money and turn it into educational money, then we did our job,” James says.
Customization Enhances Performance
The beauty of simulation training is that it’s not just for new equipment operators, but it’s also for experienced operators, in order to be able to refine or learn specific skills.
Next Gen develops each training session with a custom approach to varying operator needs.
“It’s really critical that we listen to the customers, find out what the core results are that they want, and then we design backward where we’re going to go with the actual training,” Olson says.
“We don’t have A to Z script that we have to follow,” James adds.
This individualized training also helps trainees build confidence and skills more quickly.
Another way simulator training can improve performance is because many contractors have learned to “get by” with operators who aren’t correctly trained for a particular piece of equipment. For example, James says excavator operators are notoriously undertrained.
“Usually as an excavator operator, the first week or so for your company, you’re probably going to give me something very easy to do,” he says. “By your third or fourth truck, you can kind of figure it out and not lose your job. But long term, it is also what I would consider the most dangerous thing [to operate].”
Haul truck operation is also problematic, because it seems deceptively simple.
“When I started, I was in a haul truck,” James says. “I probably rode with a gentleman for maybe 15 minutes or so and then that haul truck was my haul truck for the rest of my years that I ran it.”
Simulation training can help ensure operators are properly trained for each piece of equipment on the job site.
Progress is Measurable
The great thing about equipment operator training that incorporates simulators is that the data doesn’t lie — and the results can be proven.
“We’re tracking every person that comes through here,” Olson says.
Each training session includes a printed or PDF file with a skills assessment report for the operator, with the goal of pinpointing areas to improve in the field and at the next training session.
Next Gen is currently running a pilot study it is planning to release next year that will examine how effective simulation training is at preventing or decreasing operator damage to OE Construction’s fleet. The company is also hoping to partner with simulator manufacturers to share data trends about specific skill assessments in aggregate (without any names or private information).
Armed with the data, Next Gen believes it will be able to effectively demonstrate simulation training’s benefits to the bottom line, similar to how machine control has revolutionized grading and excavating applications.
“It took me a year to convince my company to buy Topcon [grade control],” James says. “It took 45 days to pay for Topcon. That’s how fast the return on investment came, and it’s the same, I believe, with simulation.”
In addition to the enhanced revenue opportunities, Next Gen is aiming to equip a new generation of equipment operators that are more well-rounded in all aspects of construction.
“That’s the exact goal,” James says. “I don’t want to boast about myself, but if I could create more ‘me’s’ in the construction industry, that’s exactly what we want to produce. I understand the ground, I understand the plans, I understand all of our operating procedures safety-wise, as well as any features that my company might buy to increase our productivity. We need to understand all facets of what’s going on, not just be able to put the dirt in the truck.”
Building Better Teams
Beyond training new hires and experienced operators, Olson says simulation should play an important role in pre-employment screening.
“Many people send their [potential] employees for fit testing,” Olson says. “We need to know what their role will be and what are you looking for … and we can actually put experienced operators through their paces.”
Olson says this can also be used to aid a company in its hiring decision if its faced with two potential candidates.
Even for most experienced operators, James says time on the simulators can still result in productivity improvements.
“If I see this gentleman or this lady loading for two minutes apiece on trucks, I might find a way that they could unfold their stick or use a minimal amount of hydraulics, which speeds your machine up because you’re not using a bunch of pumps and hydraulics at the same time,” he says.
Those minor details can quickly add up, he says.
“If I saved them a minute a truck, at the end of a 10-hour day, we’re talking trucks, plural — we’re talking thousands and thousands of dollars,” James says. “I’ve never had anybody come in the door yet that we couldn’t improve on some facet of what they had going on.”
Preparing for Job Sites of the Future
In addition to heavy equipment operator training, Next Gen also offers drone training, which the company expects will become another staple piece of equipment on civil sites in the future. Terri Olson says OE Construction is already using drones quite a bit for site mapping and reporting, and her son Chris is a licensed drone pilot.
“We happen to use them extensively on large-scale dirt projects, landfills, mining and so forth,” she says. “Long range, it is the future.”
Their drone courses include an overview of the rules and regulations, liability, and insurance information, as well as how to select the proper drone for the application, quadcopter flight basics, and hands-on drone training.
James notes that simulators can also help prepare operators for the eventual use of autonomous equipment on the site.
“If you have watched the operation of the autonomous machines, they are running a simulator and watching the screen,” James says. “So, the way the machines are moving in the future is … you’re not going to be on the site more than likely. We’re ahead of the curve.”
Olson believes equipment operators will still exist in the future, but their functions will change.
“It’s going to look different, and it’s going to act different,” she says.
For those that want to get a taste of the future of equipment operator training, Next Gen is currently offering free one-hour virtual sessions once a month. Information on upcoming events is available on the company’s LinkedIn page.
And though she was frustrated for so long by the current state of equipment operator training, Olson says she sees nothing but promise in the upcoming set of operators using a simulation-based approach.
“This younger group, they will push the change, and when I say younger, I mean under 40, in my opinion,” Olson says. “They’re taking your jobs — give it about a decade. It isn’t just ‘I’m operating a machine’ anymore; there’s so much more. If they choose to embrace it, they can write their own ticket.”
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