Changing the landscape: Northern NV construction industry devising innovative ways to grow local workforce
Special to the NNBV
RENO, Nev. — A new program recently rolled out by the Nevada Chapter of Associated General Contractors could help ease regional demand for skilled heavy equipment operators for Northern Nevada construction companies.
The AGC’s Construction Access Program provides hands-on training with excavators and loaders through two Caterpillar Simformation heavy equipment simulators. The simulators were purchased through a nearly $200,000 grant by the Governor’s Office of Science, Innovation and Technology.
Although the program just came online in March, says Craig Madole, chief executive officer of the AGC Nevada Chapter, it’s a promising start for training younger students the intricacies of operating heavy equipment in a safe and controlled environment.
Training the next generation
Historically, heavy equipment operators start as laborers and work their way up the ranks as they gain aptitude and familiarity with construction and grading processes.
Contractors must dedicate time and resources for journey-level operators to work with less-experienced field hands to teach them proper operation of the machinery. Companies also must absorb downtime from equipment being used as training tools rather than on the job, as well as the cost of diesel fuel.
“Although the equipment is not being used in the most effective manner, those are costs employers assume to train the next generation,” Madole says. “It is our hope that this program will correct some of those inefficiencies. Initial basic skills training now can occur here in our building. Students can get a basic feel of the controls, and it also helps employers determine student aptitude.”
In addition to purchasing the simulators, AGC’s Nevada Chapter converted about 1,200 square feet of storage space at its offices on Mill Street into new classroom space to house the simulators.
Regional construction companies donating employee time to help run the simulators and provide additional student training include Q&D Construction, Sierra Nevada Construction, Frank Lepori Construction, A&K Earth Movers, Gradex Construction Company, L.A. Perks Petroleum Specialists and VersaGrade.
The simulators also can be used by regional construction companies to quickly bring new operators up the ranks.
“Not only do we have experienced heavy equipment operators teaching them how to operate machinery, but also experienced grade setters teaching them how to understand grade and read plans,” Madole says. “We are teaching real-world application of the skills required to be a heavy equipment operator.”
The Tesla effect
Running heavy equipment can be a viable career, Madole notes. Journey-level operators with the Operating Engineers Local 3 in Reno make about $37.50 an hour, or more than $70,000 annually with full benefits and retirement, Madole says.
It typically takes between three to four years and 6,000 hours worked in grading and paving for operators to reach journey-level status, the OE3 reports. Training includes additional classroom instruction at the OE3 Nevada Apprenticeship and Training Center in Wadsworth.
While the Construction Access Program currently is limited to students attending the Academy for Career Education in Reno, Madole hopes to eventually include schools throughout the Washoe County School District.
“When we applied for the grant, we discussed the concept with ACE, and they assisted us in the grant process,” he says. “We hope to expand to career technical education programs at local high schools so we can identify and train upcoming graduating seniors and hopefully place them with an employer and start them on a career immediately following high school.”
That’s especially important since Tesla came to town, Madole adds. Since the electric car manufacturer provides a many good-paying job opportunities at its Gigafactory east of town, the construction industry must continually come up with new and innovative ways to replenish and grow its workforce.
“Tesla changed the landscape significantly,” Madole says. “We are competing with manufacturing jobs that historically we didn’t have to compete with. There are other good jobs available to that group of people who would consider construction as a career. We have to attract them — the fact that we have jobs available just isn’t enough.
“Our hope is that these simulators can attract kids who feel this is something they can do. Workforce development begins with people wanting to do these kinds of jobs.”
The OE3 also operates a mobile lab that provides increased training opportunities.
Lance Semenko, president of Q&D Construction, says the AGC’s Construction Access Program meets today’s youth at a point with which they are familiar – the simulators function much like an advanced video game.
“We are trying to hook these kids back into something they understand,” Semenko says.
Modern reality of labor shortages
Q&D, much like competitors Granite Construction and Sierra Nevada Construction, has had no shortage of work in recent years as the regional construction economy continues to power ahead at full steam.
Q&D had a headcount of 460 at the end of March, Semenko says, and it should top out around 700 during peak construction season this summer. By way of comparison, Q&D employed 1,150 workers at its peak during the boom years of 2005-2006.
The big difference between now and then, Semenko notes, is the economy is thriving in major U.S. cities, and transitory union workers aren’t flocking to Nevada as they did in the past.
“You don’t have one place that’s hotter than another, so everyone is competing for the same pool of people,” he says. “It’s very clear where the work is, and there’s a huge volume of union work going on all over the country.”
Adding qualified staff — especially in key management positions — has long been a challenge and requires Q&D’s executive team to try new avenues for recruitment.
During the past few years, Q&D leaders have attended college recruitment fairs at the University of Nevada, Reno, California State University-Chico and Oregon State University. The trips have paid off in the form of many internships and more than a half-dozen vacant management positions filled.
Semenko says it’s crucial to find key replacements for older workers nearing retirement, as well as to add younger minds with fresh ways of approaching work to the company’s offices.
It’s equally important, however, for older workers to pass along their years of hard-won knowledge to younger workers.
“It’s crazy with the younger guys in the field how tech-savvy they are,” he says. “They pick up on it more quickly than older generations. We have a group of young people that have put together videos to teach our older guys how to make their work easier. It is a huge benefit to the company, and it’s something we have never dealt with before.
“But we have to have our older guys share the knowledge that was shared by the generations above them. It is about the passing down of knowledge.”
Rob Sabo is a Reno-based freelance writer and former reporter for the Northern Nevada Business View.
Heather Ashbridge, who started with Nevada State Development Corporation in 2008, previously served in several roles with the organization, including assistant vice president and loan officer. She is based in NSDC’s Reno office.