A Columbus school has a new way to train students for construction jobs

Jordan Vocational High School is among the first six Georgia schools to start a Heavy Equipment Operator Training Program.

This story was originally published by the Ledger-Enquirer.

You hear this classroom before you see it.

That familiar “beep-beep-beep” of something big and dangerous backing up emanates from the four simulated excavators 13 Jordan Vocational High School Student operate as they train for certifications that could lead to lucrative jobs in the construction industry.

Jordan is among the first six Georgia schools to start a Heavy Equipment Operator Training Program. Designed by a partnership between CAT Simulators and C.W. Matthews Contracting, the program offers students four industry certifications:

  • NCCER Construction Core.: NCCER is the National Center for Construction Education and Research. The Construction Core is a curriculum teaching basic construction skills.
  • CAT Excavator: CAT is Caterpillar, the world’s leading manufacturer of construction equipment. An excavator is a power-operated shovel used for digging and transporting the loosened material.
  • CAT Dozer: A dozer is a tractor-driven machine with a broad horizontal blade used for leveling the surface and clearing site.
  • Industry Partner: This is the Heavy Equipment Operator certification from C.W. Matthews.

Jordan applied for the state grant last school year and was notified this summer it would receive $400,000 to buy four simulators. Two virtual reality headsets, totaling about $16,000 in local money, enhance the experience, Jordan construction teacher Jimmy Napier told the Ledger-Enquirer.

Realistic experience

Napier graduated from Jordan in 2008. This is his fourth year teaching at the school. He previously worked in maintenance, HVAC and construction, so he knows what it takes to operate heavy equipment, and these simulators provide that experience.

“It’s exactly the same thing if you were sitting in a Caterpillar excavator,” Napier said. “… It’s as pretty close as you can get to real life. You feel it move. You feel the brake. If you do something too heavy, you feel it. You feel every vibration.”

Credit: Mike Haskey

Credit: Mike Haskey

Napier recalled driving a dozer on the simulator to the edge of a cliff.

“You can look over and see the bottom,” he said, “and you feel the equipment rock back and forth, and you know it’s time to back up.”

Students even wear safety goggles while using the simulators to create real-life situations as much as possible. The exercises start with a walk around the machine for a 30-point maintenance and safety checklist, such as ensuring the oil and fuel filters don’t have a simulated leak.

In each exercise, the simulator gives the student operators a task and grades them on how well they perform. The degree of difficulty increases from the beginner to expert range, depending on the student’s progress.

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The exercises have an online curriculum for the students to understand the techniques in the classroom across the hall before they test themselves on the simulator. The exams for each unit are the same as the practice modules, except they give the students fewer prompts on the screen.

“You have to know what you’re doing,” Napier said, “rather than just follow the directions.”

Impressive progress

When the L-E visited the program in late September, the students were 3½ weeks into the curriculum and already showing success.

“It’s starting to be second nature to them,” Napier said. “They know what most of the prompts are before they come up.”

During his first day in the program, the excavator Jordan junior Kevin Hunt, 17, was driving collided with a truck.

“The good thing about this, you’re doing it on a simulator,” Kevin told the L-E. “You don’t have to go to your foreman and say, ‘Hey, I hit a truck.’”

Credit: Mike Haskey

Credit: Mike Haskey

It took him four classes to finish the exercise titled “Over the Moon,” which requires the student operator to move the bucket to a certain area without hitting the adjacent truck. “After that,” he said, “I was so happy.”

The simulator gives the student operator a report after each exercise. Statistics include the execution time, the amount of fuel burned, the number of collisions, RPMs and bucket height. For example, the simulator told Kevin he passed the exercise but drove too fast and held his bucket too high.

The simulator also measures how well the student operators control their bucket along the prescribed path required in the exercise.

“It’s a little picky sometimes,” Napier said.

Each exercise has a minimum time to be completed. When he started on the simulator, Jordan senior Greg Owens, 17, took more than 10 minutes to finish the exercises. Now, he does them in under 5 minutes.

“I feel like I’m on track,” he told the L-E. “I’m doing the right thing.”

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Napier recalled the first exercise for the students. The task required them to load 60,000 pounds of dirt into a dump truck within 3 minutes and 40 seconds. Most students initially took more than 15 minutes to do it.

“Now, they’re getting below that 5-minute mark,” he said. “They’re starting to see it’s doable.”

Kevin’s fastest time was 2:25, down from 6 minutes his first try. The industry standard is 2:40.

Program’s potential impact

Napier marveled at the opportunity his students have to get a head start on a construction industry career.

“The access to it is going to put them miles ahead,” he said. “… Once they go into the workforce, they’ll already be comfortable with controls, terminology, what’s expected of them.”

Napier plans to take his students at the end of the course to the Columbus Water Works training facility to operate actual heavy equipment.

“They’re trying to get it so we can go there once a month and practice,” he said. “Then, at the end of the course, go out there and take the final exam.”

The students are taking the excavator course this semester. Next semester, they will take the bulldozer course. The simulator can be changed into different pods, depending on which machines the students need training and the funding available.

Credit: Mike Haskey

Credit: Mike Haskey

A starting job with construction industry certification pays at least $15 per hour, and more than $20 per hour after one year, Napier said. NCCER’s 2022 Construction Craft Salary Survey found average annual salaries for 41 types of positions in the industry ranged from $49,920 to $98,965.

“For some students in our community,” Napier said, “that’s life-changing money. … If you make it a career, once you move up in a company, you can be well over six figures.”

According to the latest data available from the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, 97% of Jordan’s students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch in the 2020-21 school year.

In a 90-minute class period, each of the 13 students in the program gets at least 30 minutes on a simulator, Napier said. The students qualify for the class if they completed the construction or metals pathway.

“We’re planning to keep it around 15,” Napier said. “That way, they can get the most amount of seat time.”

The simulator saves construction companies the cost of fuel it would take to train operators on real equipment, Napier said.

In discussions with officials from 10 local construction companies, Napier said, he heard of more than 120 job openings for heavy equipment operators. No wonder those companies support this program with guest speakers and offering site visits.

“My family is in the construction business,” Kevin said. “It’s a dream of mine to work in construction.”

“I love it,” Napier said. “… Everybody doesn’t have to go to college. There are ways to provide for your family without getting a four-year degree.”


Credit: Ledger-Enquirer

Credit: Ledger-Enquirer

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