Training in Construction: Necessary, Important, and Possible
To train or not to train? It’s no longer a question.
“Ignorance is expensive,” says Dan Abbott, director of learning services for the Knife River Corp. “It’s costing you in accidents, it’s costing you in fuel and in premature failure of equipment and lack of productivity.”
“Contractors have pretty well run out of customers who call and say, “You’ve always done a great job for me in the past and you’re the only one I want for this job I’ve got coming up,’“ says Jay Capristo, vice president and general manager of Productivity Products and Services Inc., a Topcon dealer in Saxonberg, PA. “Everybody still wants a good job, but they also want a good deal and they want it done right and done quickly. GPS and machine control technology hit all three of those buttons. I tell the customers we train not only will they enjoy learning something new, they’ll have the ability to compete and still make a buck.”
“Today a job has to be done per drawing and per specifications,” says Gene Kidd, field staff supervisor for IUOE Local 701. “With the new technologies you can get the job done fast and precisely. But it still takes a human being to make sure the controls get moved.”
Which, says Joan Hollerich, senior product service engineer at Caterpillar, leads us directly to training. “Given the scope of activities on today’s earthmoving jobs, contractors need skills ranging from equipment and fleet management to CAD and estimating to GPS, surveying and infrastructure to electronics and hydraulics. The only way to stay competitive is to be informed.”
“Training is not just about learning the clicks,” says HCSS COO Steve McGough. “It’s very easy to change out someone’s estimating software because you’re usually dealing with one department, but it’s completely different when you’re dealing with products or data that goes across multiple departments.” (HCSS offers a lifetime guarantee on its software but only if the customer trains on what they buy. Maxwell Systems likewise stresses the importance of training and that the software be properly configured and adopted throughout an organization.)
“The most difficult thing for people to understand is that training is not simply popping in a DVD,” says Angela Remington at Vista Training Inc. “That’s only one component. You need to be working with your people both in the classroom and in the field, helping them understand the operator manuals and constantly working on safety.”
So what’s a contractor to do? The first step is evaluate what you expect from what you invest in—how you expect this new technology or software or better trained operators will benefit your operation in productivity, safety, and the bottom line. Second, identify who needs to be trained and on what. Third, research resources, evaluating availability and cost. Fourth, consider how you’re going to integrate training into existing organizational or job-site operations.
The big mistakes, says Abbott, who was instrumental 20 years ago in developing Knife River Construction’s in-house training program, are cutting corners and trying to make do with a half-hearted effort. Spend the time and money you need, and when everyone’s up to speed, investigate advanced applications such as the asset tracking and performance monitoring available through GPS/machine control.
Rocks in the Middle of the Road
“The decision to invest in machine control obviously gets made from the top,” says Chris Mazur, training and support manager, North America, for Leica Geosystems Machine Control Division. “But if the guys running the equipment don’t get trained properly, you’re not going to get the return you’re looking for in performance increases and job-site savings. Too many contractors think of this as buying another piece of iron. They want us to set up the system on Tuesday afternoon and put it to work improving production Wednesday morning. That’s a recipe for failure, because the only thing the customer has learned is that particular application that day.” Leica offers off-season offsite classroom training and demonstrations to compliment its onsite instruction, either free or for a nominal fee. It’s also set to introduce regional Leica Solution Centers, which will offer sales support, service and training based on local needs.
“The percentage increase the contractor realizes from machine control is directly related to the level of training,” says John Dice at Topcon. “We make training available, affordable and cost effective through our off-season programs at Topcon University’s facility, onsite training when that’s more cost-effective for the customer, and through our webinars and online lessons that allow customers to learn specific product functions at their convenience.”
“An operator can learn basic grade and profiles pretty easily,” says Capristo. “But when you get into ditches and super elevations and multiple contours, there’s an awful lot an operator can learn. We start with the basics of GPS, the customer’s particular system and their machines, review any updates and then share what I call tricks of the trade we’ve learned from experiences with other customers. And because understanding proper job control and job setup is a critical element for effective machine control usage, we spend a lot of training time on that. One of our strongest suites is our trouble-shooting and tech support. Often we can sort things out over the phone. If not, we go to the job site.”
If employees are going to take full advantage of machine control, training is paramount, says Lamar Hester, sales engineer manager, Americas Region Heavy and Highway Division for Trimble Navigation Ltd. “We need to recognize that just like anyone else, contractors can often develop individualized approaches to using technology that may inadvertently limit their applications. Part of our job is to make them aware of functions they might have missed that could help make their job easier.” Trimble depends on its dealers to help customers “grow with the technology” and has established a system of certifying dealer trainers so end users can be assured of consistent levels of knowledge and expertise.
“We need to help new users of machine control systems understand the whole process,” says Cat’s Hollerich, “including what’d be needed to produce a digital design and support GPS on the machines and what types of services they should look for if they choose to subcontract. This is a role that can be filled through the Cat dealer’s SITECH partner.” (Trimble-managed outlets for aftermarket products and services). Regional Cat dealers and demonstration centers also offer Machine Application and Performance Seminars (MAPS): four and a half days of intensive training focused on machine efficiency and productivity, including fundamentals of earthmoving, actual machine exercises, measuring rates of production, and using Caterpillar tools to evaluate operating techniques, job-site layout, and haul roads.
Caterpillar has also developed a program of certifying Regional Dealer Learning Centers such as the Empire Training Institute in Mesa, AZ, which provides technical and operational training programs for Empire employees, customers and other Caterpillar dealers via instructor-led and web-cased courses. Classes can be scheduled and conducted at either Empire’s 36,000 square-foot training facility or onsite. All training courses use pre- and post-testing to measure learning and monitor growth, and students are presented with a certificate of completion. Empire is also one of three Cat-certified applied failure-analysis training facilities.
Komatsu America Corp. trains through its dealers using a combination of computer-based, online, and instructor-led training on machine familiarization and operation and best practices. Case dealers offer Operator Training Kits that cover everything from components to attachments to preventative maintenance. The kits can be used in instructor-based or self-paced training. Skid-steer compact track loader and loader backhoe kits are available in English and Spanish, wheel loader in English only.
At HCSS McGough cautions contractors thinking of purchasing software to factor in the cost of training, which can be as much as $12,000–$15,000 on a $20,000 package. “Software is meant to take time out of your system, and the companies that do the best with implementation take the opportunity to review their business processes for ways to integrate the software across departments. We help them do this, either onsite or in our headquarters in Houston. Once that’s done, it’s easy to train field or office employees because all the decisions in the business process and workflow have already been worked out.”
Without proper training, you may not see the performance you expect from your expensive equipment.
Photo: John Deere
Today’s displays combine exceptional detail with performance fidelity.
Many simulator controls look, feel, and respond like the real things.
“We looked at it as a total package,” says HCSS client Casey Dillon, project manager/estimator at Atlas Excavating Inc. in West Layfette, ID. “The software was going to cost $30,000. I was going to buy 15 laptops—that’s $15,000—along with some other miscellaneous equipment. It came to about $60,000, and it was a no-brainer to do the training to protect our investment and make sure it was a success.”
“For things that are very straightforward and standardized and users will typically have the same questions, we offer free videos and software tutorials for new users,” says Dexter + Chaney Marketing Vice President Brad Mathews. “For more advanced and specific applications we have the annual users conference and our traveling training designed for groups of people to learn about a specific subject. Our software has a lot of functionality, and individual clients are only going to use certain pieces of it as it applies to their organizations. This requires a specialized plan for training and implementation and for this, we have customized onsite training.”
“Training is an ongoing process,” says Lisa Stotts, Maxwell Systems vice president of professional services. “We will visit our customers regularly throughout their entire life cycle. Our greatest success is when we walk them through how to effectively use what they purchase—how to set up the estimating databases or to build assemblies in conjunction with the accounting and project management configuration. We follow this up with periodical check-ups to ensure the company is receiving maximum benefits. With some of smaller contractors who are perhaps coming over to software for the first time, we try to offer something that doesn’t break the bank but provides them with a combination of tools to help them get up and running.” Right on, says Erin Mohr at Page Construction Inc. Woodland Park, CO, who got up to speed using online troubleshooting for help when the company transferred over to Maxwell Systems’ accounting software.
Machine displays provide real-time performance feedback to operators.
Carlson Software has developed multiple lines of training support for its machine control software: dealers first and for sticky issues, direct customer support, online training tutorials, a unique, “In-Cab Video Support,” which enables operators to learn or refresh themselves on an operation with a video in the machine cab, and for troubleshooting, a “Remote Support” option that allows Carlson engineers to log in and remotely operate a customer’s machine control system. All of this is free but requires an active software maintenance agreement. There’s also Carlson College, which offers courses by authorized instructors who respond to the local marketplace by producing and hosting their own training classes.
It’s one thing to get employees you already have up to speed, another to get your hands on trained new hires. For these technical schools and community colleges can be a resource. At McAninch Corp. in Des Moines, IA, an early beta site for Trimble machine control, Vice President Don Taylor has cultivated local educational institutions as sources of skilled employees. “Operator training can be done very quickly. For the next level up it’s the same kind of training that you would have for a traditional field layout surveyor. You could do this in-house as a journeyman apprentice, but we’ve opted for technical college graduates or someone with some advanced education from a college or university. For the third level, the software manipulator, a young man who was tapped to lead our GPS division and I went together to the local community college two nights a week for four months. It introduced us to AutoCad and got us started.”
To help meet the labor shortage, experts like Vista’s Remington are forecasting for the industry, as well as filling in the gap of potential operators who are technology savvy but may lack construction skills and experience, Caterpillar has developed THINKBIG, a program that partners dealerships with community colleges. Empire Cat, for example has partnered with Mesa Community College to administer the THINKBIG two-year program apprentice program for diesel technicians.
In North Carolina a regional shortage of technical labor was the impetus for Stanly Community College in Albermarle, to implement a technical skills program that features hands-on training for heavy equipment operators. Working on feedback that employers wanted potential employees who are “squared away on OSHA safety, know what’s expected on the job site, can communicate reasonably well, do some very fundamental math and know how important it is to be at work everyday-and they’ll do the work of making them seasoned operators,” Career and Technical Education Coordinator Gene Kidd put together a 10-month program built around the National Center for Construction Education and Research’s core curriculum that includes OSHA safety, construction math, drawings and prints, hand tools, power tools, rigging, material handling, and technical communications-how to communicate in a workplace environment plus phone etiquette and e-mail. After 200 hours of classroom time in which they learn machine controls, basic techniques, operator safety issues, construction site plans and grade stake reading, students head to the lab.
Kidd’s secret weapons include the HVEQ Program Outdoor Lab Site, a 12-acre proving ground built with the help of the local NC Air National Guard unit, equipment acquired through the local Caterpillar dealer, Carolina Cat, and PC-based Cat simulators purchased with a grant from the North Carolina Golden Leaf Foundation. (Cat’s simulators are distributed by Simformation LLC. The cost of the program’s simulators was approximately $30,000 for software and a controls station. A Cat operator’s seat is an extra $3,500, and the college chose to provide its own seats, standard office chairs that “fit” the controls station baseplate, but spent an additional $6,500 per simulator station to procure and install the computer system hardware, including flat-screen monitors.) John Deere also offers PC-based simulators, including new crawler dozer and backhoe models that can be equipped with a new motion platform option that allows operators to feel the simulator react to the virtual job-site terrain. PC-based simulators have the advantage of being more easily portable, which increases their versatility, and are much less expensive than the full-motion advanced training simulators offered by manufacturers such as Volvo.
“We believe operators who have the benefit of simulator training at the beginning of their training learn to do things according to best practices and to focus on productivity, which makes them better operators once they’re in the field,” says Mike Keffer at Montreal-based Simlog (distributed in the US through Vista Training), which designed the original Caterpillar simulators. “We create a training simulator that focuses on generic core skills. Customers who’ve done studies measuring employees who had 30 to 40 hours of simulator time against a control group against that didn’t found operators who trained on the simulators were 50% more productive and there was a noticeable decrease in damage to the equipment.”
“Simulators speed up familiarization with the equipment,” says Gann, a full-time Stanly faculty member who teaches in the program. “When we take the students into the field after a week or a week and a half on the simulators, they’re able to concentrate, so when we tell them to do something, they can move the machine to accomplish it. It also helps their hand-eye-body coordination: They’re smooth-operating basic controls and moving the equipment around.” The college has five Cat VTS simulator stations, three of which are installed in the Heavy Equipment Operations Program’s main campus classroom and two in its HVEQ Mobile Simulation lab, a 20-foot “show type” trailer, which is used for student instruction as well as program promotion, education fairs, onsite industry training, and high school career days.
In Macon, GA, Reeves Construction uses a Cat simulator as a recruiting tool to interest college students in heavy and highway construction. “We want to get these folks for internships and as eventual employees,” says Human Resource Manager Randy England. “They tend to think about building construction, not building roads and bridges and things such as that. But we need infrastructure as well.”
At IOUE Local 701 in Portland, OR, Gann has introduced simulators from Simlog. “We started with an excavator, went to a tower crane, then a hydrocrane, then a loader, and we’re now looking for a dozer. It’s really improved our training capability, not only for apprentices but also for our journeymen who may be switching jobs or equipment. The thing I’ve been impressed with is how this gives a person the opportunity to feel comfortable enough on a piece of equipment that every movement isn’t a concern. Many times when we’re out in the field on a job, we think, how we might have done this differently. Simulators actually give you the opportunity to look at a job in many different ways so when you go onto a job site and you’re told to go do something, you have an idea of what to do rather than being scared-to-death. Plus the expense we’ve saved on fuel and safety and manpower has been invaluable. We’ve probably cut our training expense in half.”
Simlog simulators are also being used in a municipal in-house training program at the city of Kitchener outside Toronto. The city was having trouble finding qualified heavy equipment operators and solved the problem by purchasing Simlog’s hydraulic excavator simulator. Employees who want to upgrade to equipment operators begin on the simulator, training on their own time. Those that make the cut go onto the actual equipment. “Simulators are an area where contractors seem to be poking their head up and taking notice,” says Vista’s Remington. An entry-level simulator from Simlog for a wheel loader or a hydraulic excavator is under $10,000, including all the hardware and software. Aside from being used to augment training, they can help companies screen potential applicants and upgrade skills for seasoned operators.
Author's Bio: Journalist Penelope Grenoble is a frequent contributor to Forester Media, Inc. publications.