Strapped into the heavy equipment simulator, exactly like the seat and controls of a real-world front-end loader, I take a deep breath and lever it forward.

Having just successfully unloaded and then reloaded a big Caterpillar earth-mover on a low-boy trailer, there’s a real danger of over-confidence here.

But with the help of the good folks here at Germanna Community College’s Center for Workforce & Community Education in Central Park, I push on, trying hard to forget my share of mishaps on jobs in high school behind the wheel of a forklift.

Slowly learning to operate the loader controls with the help of Germanna’s Dave Laraway, I manage to scoop up a load of rock, raise my boom and get the loader over to a big dump truck that shows on a video screen in front of me.

I lower my boom and bucket once, twice, three times until—Oh, darn!—I end up smashing it into the dump truck, the words “Operator Error!” appearing on the screen, which has suddenly turned an odd color.

Yep, I smashed my bucket right into the bed of the truck.

“And that’s the beauty of these simulators and the new program we’re using them in,” said a watching Benjamin Sherman, business and career coordinator for the center operated by Germanna. “Any mistakes that may happen as students learn and become familiar with the equipment will be in simulations and not in real equipment on work sites.”

The program he’s talking about is a new one for Germanna, to train and certify heavy equipment operators.

It’s possible because of a $1.4 million state grant awarded to the Center for Workforce and Community Education, in partnership with Lord Fairfax Community College and Piedmont Virginia Community College.

The new program to train and certify heavy equipment operators is part of a state community college program that prepares students to fill jobs where skilled workers are in great demand.

And let’s face it, there are few other spots in Virginia where heavy equipment operators will be more needed over the next decade or two than the Fredericksburg region, set to receive more than $1 billion in highway funding for improvements during that time.

Through the state grant, Germanna received $700,000, which helped to cover the cost of the two virtual simulators I got to try out. Each is able to mimic different types and brands of equipment such as excavators or loaders with the video programs to make it all seem real.

“We’re pretty excited about this new program, which we call Heavy Equipment Training and Certification, HEO for short,” said Martha O’Keefe, associate vice president for workforce and professional development at Germanna. “We’ve been working this past year on the curriculum development, putting it online and setting up the simulators here.”

She noted that the online parts of the curriculum start in July, with the “face-to-face” training starting the end of this month. The course is a mix where students learn theory and a range of skills needed to succeed in the job, and put in time in the simulators.

“Folks can come in and over a series of seven weeks, get trained up, earn certified credentials and get an entry-level job as a heavy equipment operator,” she said.

It’s a field where the median wage is just under $46,000 a year and can grow with experience to the $70,000 range.

She noted the program was created to help fill a local need.

“All you have to do to see that need is look at the projects coming for I–95, as well as the comeback of the construction industry and commercial home building,” she said. “This will create a career path, providing entry-level skills as well as an opportunity to come back and get more training in second-level skills” in a HEO 2 class also offered.

Sherman noted that a key part of the HEO classes is a credential students receive showing they know how to operate the equipment they’ve been trained on.

“The National Center for Construction Education and Research, the certifying body, will provide a card when they’ve completed the program,” he said. “If you go to Joe’s Excavating or wherever to get a job, you can use the card to go in and see an instant transcript, exactly how the student performed getting trained on an excavator or any other piece of equipment covered.”

Another plus for the program—which was created with help from local employers—is the fact that anyone completing the program is guaranteed an interview by the local businesses taking part.

O’Keefe noted that it can’t be over-stressed how this training in equipment operation and safety considerations will give students a leg up.

“Heavy equipment operation is a potentially dangerous field,” she said. “When you go knocking on the door of a local employer and ask them to put you in an expensive piece of equipment, this credential gives them the assurance that a student is familiar, aware and capable of handling the equipment.”

Sherman noted that in addition to the training in how to operate the machinery, the HEO training provides an OSHA certification, as well as skills to help students be successful in the job.

“Those skills include blueprint reading, basic math, basic rigging, communication skills, employability skills, how to get ready for an interview and then how to be successful in a career,” he said.

A quick look around the Workforce Center tells you learning to operate heavy equipment is just one of many job skills taught there.

“We also have programs in HVAC, plumbing, carpentry, open-pit mining, electrical, gas-fitting, industrial maintenance, C&C for machining, and one dear to my heart, asphalt training,” said Sherman, noting that the latter teaches students what’s necessary to perform on VDOT projects, from field level to plant level to a high level of mix design.

O’Keefe said that because the HEO training is part of FastForward, a program to provide state workers in high demand jobs, there’s big savings.

“Those domiciled in Virginia only pay one-third of the cost of the $2,745 fee for the HEO Level 1 training,” she said.

She added that the schedule allows students to take classes on Saturdays and Sundays for seven weeks. “And we’ve the instruction up so that students will come in for Saturday and Sundays for seven weeks. “In two months time,” O’Keefd said, “they can have a new career.”

Even if they might bash a loader arm into the bed of a dump truck on their first day of simulation training.

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Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415

rhedelt@freelancestar.com

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