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Heavy Equipment Operator Shortage Drives Great Opportunities

Careers in the trades are hot today, and the shortage of heavy equipment operators makes this trade one of the hottest. With many industries looking for operators, governments and educational institutions are realizing that this is the perfect time to encourage people to turn this occupation into a rewarding career path.

What heavy equipment is all about

Think of those large pieces of equipment you see on construction, road building, mining, and industrial sites. Bulldozers, excavators, backhoes, graders, loaders, rock trucks... they're the heavy, driver-operated machines that make up the backbone of any project.

A heavy equipment operator, sometimes called an operating engineer, knows how to work one or more of these pieces of equipment.

The shortage

"According to an FMI [a management consulting company] study on the construction workforce shortage, there is a nine percent deficiency in the field of operating engineers," says Don Whyte, president of the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER), located in Florida.

"This means that for every 11 heavy equipment jobs available, one will not be filled."

Kent Orrock is a human resources programs manager for a road builders and heavy construction association. He points out that there are increasing numbers of heavy equipment operators retiring.

Heavy equipment operators are in demand for infrastructure projects and renewal. Bridges, highways, airports, pipelines, railroads, schools, hospitals, shopping malls -- all these structures and services need to be built and maintained.

"If you think about it, all the infrastructure out there was built around the baby boom era [between 1940 and 1960]," says George Gritziotis, executive director of a council in charge of construction.

"Well, guess what? The infrastructure has been aging, too. We need to invest in it, and that has implications for heavy equipment operators."

Heavy equipment operators may find employment in various sectors. These include construction, mining, quarrying, public works, cargo-handling, and oil and gas companies.

Skilled operators wanted

Most people become heavy equipment operators through on-the-job training. However, many companies now expect operators to have at least some basic formal training, obtained through a technical institution or trades school. Local regulations and internal company certification may make such specialized training a requirement. This is partly due to concerns about safety.

"We know that one of the most effective practices for reducing and eliminating accidents and incidents on a job site is the presence of a skilled craft professional," says Whyte.

"Owners hold the key to the solution. When owners broadly enforce that no contractor will be employed who does not invest in training, then participation in training will rise."

Training and apprenticeship leading to certification are what managers say will also give heavy equipment operation the profile of a career rather than just a job.

This means that industry and government must invest in more training programs, which is gradually starting to happen.

"We are in the process of developing assessments geared towards specific pieces of heavy equipment through [NCCER's] National Craft Assessment and Certification Program," says Whyte.

Orrock thinks that more resources could be devoted to training in trades like heavy equipment operation. Right now, it's often difficult for those who are already on the job to get all the training they will eventually need in their career.

"It costs money to take these courses," he says, "and companies can't afford to let people go to take courses because they need them on the job site."

Nonetheless, industry insiders feel that apprenticeship and certification should become required for operators in the future. As Gritziotis points out, a career as a heavy equipment operator should be based on the professionalism that comes with certification.

Shifts in thinking

With evolving employment trends in North America, people are realizing that there are career prospects and job security to be found in types of work that do not require a college degree.

Plus, as Orrock points out, "There's a lot of competition among all of the trades." Since there are many skilled trades to choose from, competition for young workers is downright fierce!

It's a great time to look beyond stereotypes about who tends to be in an occupation, as industries are more open to diverse types of workers than ever in their recruiting. The NCCER has formed a partnership with the National Association for Women in Construction.

To attract new workers to road building and heavy construction, Orrock does 13 to 25 career fairs per year. He also sends brochures to high schools.

Will demand for heavy equipment operators continue to be as strong in the future? It's true that retirement will level off eventually, and all booms come to an end. However, a new boom usually takes over, and infrastructure just keeps getting older. It's a good bet that there will always be a demand for heavy equipment operators.


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