Training a New Generation of Workers

Featured in: Dig Different

Manufacturers make equipment easier to use to help contractors train new employees

One of the biggest challenges facing the underground construction industry is finding skilled, quality employees to operate a company’s expansive roster of equipment.

“You need good people working for you,” says Braydon Jeske, an operator with Supreme Vac in Edmonton, Alberta. His father, Terry, owns the company. “You can have all the best equipment in the world, but having competent employees to operate the equipment is the most important thing. And they’re hard to find.”

It’s not just vacuum excavation where it’s hard to find qualified employees. Contractors working with directional drills, trenchers, and tractors have all echoed what Jeske says.

Doing Their Part

Contractors like Jay Flositz, owner of directional drilling company Coastal Cable in Florida, say it’s easier to find someone who can run equipment but has never operated a drill. That allows the workers to be trained the way the company wants them trained.

Manufacturers are aware of the problems facing the industry and are trying to do their part to ease the burden on construction company owners.

“Labor is a challenge, and anything we can do to help an owner broaden their labor pool or train their labor force more quickly, we will do,” says Steve Seabolt, Ditch Witch product manager for heavy duty tractors. “The best thing that we can do from a manufacturer’s standpoint is make the machines user friendly and simple to operate with intuitive controls in order to minimize the learning curve and reduce the time required for new employees to become productive on the machines.”

Ditch Witch equipment, for example, uses common symbols, colors, and machine-human interface standards across its product families wherever possible, while considering the distinct control needs of each.

“Vacuum excavators have very different operational requirements than a horizontal directional drill,” says Seabolt. “Within each product line, we strive for a great deal of consistency in our controls to make them simple, intuitive, comfortable, and as common as possible. All of these elements help make for a more productive operator.”

The company follows industry standards in using accepted symbols so that commonality extends beyond Ditch Witch products. “When operators climb on and off other machines, they don’t have to relearn what a symbol means,” Seabolt says.

The company has also made displays easier to read on equipment. They are graphic multi-color displays that give the operator more timely information.

“If a certain condition exists on the machines, whether it’s a reminder, a warning, a bit of advice, or operational instruction, we’re able to show those on the display at a time when the operator needs to see it the most,” Seabolt says. “Technology has really aided us in these advancements.”

Contractor Benefits

Ronnie Baron Sr., owner of hydroexcavation company Pro Serve in Louisiana, says he’s lucky to find one qualified employee out of 100 interviews. “It’s that bad out there,” he says. “That’s why we do everything we can to hold onto as many employees as we can.”

Baron cites a study he read, saying it takes about five years to learn all the intricacies and nuances and become a highly-qualified hydroexcavation equipment operator. It takes that long with other heavy equipment as well.

Having equipment that has similar controls and symbols can make things easier for the contractor.

“When a contractor has a fleet of machines and any given operator could be working with any of those machines on any given day, the more commonality we have across the products, the better,” says Seabolt.

Training The Crews

Manufacturers can help contractors with some of that training. Many in the industry offer virtual reality simulators, as well as training at the point of purchase in the region of use.

“The Ditch Witch certified training program incorporates key foundational elements for operating HDD equipment,” says Greg Wolfe, Ditch Witch director of training. “It provides a comprehensive platform for both new and experienced operators with training that fits their schedule and equipment experience.”

Wolfe says the full program has options that allow HDD operators the opportunity to train online at home, in a dealership, or on a mobile device, at no cost, and at a time that fits their own schedule.

Virtual hands-on simulators deliver the realistic experience of sitting behind the controls of a drill using standard controls.

“Training operators is a real challenge for the industry right now,” says Tod Michael, product manager of trenchless products at Vermeer. “We created the Navigator HDD simulator to mimic the experience of operating a real drill, and the programming includes a typical project an operator could face any day.”

Using virtual reality simulators not only gives operators hands-on experience, but it also means there will be less wear and tear on equipment and tooling because they aren’t using actual equipment, and it helps reduce the possible safety implications of putting them directly on a job site.

“Practicing on the VR simulator allows operators to learn in a controlled and safe environment, and appeals to the next-generation operators by providing a digital training experience,” Wolfe says.

Read Up

Manufacturers say they can make the machines simple to use, but there’s another simple yet vital method that can help contractors train a new generation of workers: opening the operators manuals.

“That sounds basic, but there’s an immense amount of information in there,” says Seabolt. “A great deal of frustrations could be avoided and learning curves can be reduced by leveraging the operator’s manual as the textbook.”

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