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Employers need more workers who dig digging

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Contractors are struggling to find people who can operate the heavy machinery needed to build roads, lay pipe and clear land for subdivisions.

“It’s awful. There are no applicants,” said Dickie Sisson, owner of Sisson Excavating in Stafford County. “People are not coming into the field.”

The Northern Virginia area, including Fredericksburg and Stafford, is facing a shortfall of 2,000 to 2,500 construction workers, including heavy-equipment operators. Even more will be needed to work on such projects as the HOT lanes on Interstate 95 and the widening of I–66, said Kenneth Garrison Jr., executive director of the Heavy Construction Contractors Association in Manassas.

Lord Fairfax Community College, at his organization’s urging, will soon help to fill the gap. It will become the first community college in Virginia to offer statewide industry credential programs for heavy equipment operators thanks to a $453,686 Workforce Capacity Building grant from the Virginia Community College System. Northern Virginia Community College is looking into offering something similar.

“Several dozen people have shown an interest on our website, and we’re still working through the fine details as to when to start,” said Guy E. Curtis III, director of marketing, business and industry training for Lord Fairfax’s Office of Workforce Solutions and Continuing Education. “It looks like it will be the first week in December.”

Students will be able to take the classes either two nights a week for three months or on weekends for a month and a half at Lord Fairfax’s Vint Hill site. The cost will be roughly $2,500 for Level I and for Level II, with the grant covering two-thirds of that. Students needing additional assistance for the remaining one-third may be eligible to receive Financial Aid for Noncredit Training Leading to Industry Credentials, or FANTIC, funds.

The heavy equipment operators classes will use the National Center for Construction Education and Research’s curriculum and national industry credentialing, and students will be trained using state-of-the-art Vortext simulation equipment.

“The simulation equipment will allow our students to gain hands-on training on multiple types of heavy construction equipment that will replicate real-life operating scenarios through rotating-motion platforms and high-resolution 3D displays,” said LFCC Workforce Solutions and Continuing Education Vice President Jeanian Clark in a news release.

A number of HCCA members have indicated that they are interested in interviewing and potentially hiring students who go through the program, Curtis said.

Among them is William A. Hazel Inc., the largest site construction company and owner of one of the largest private fleets of heavy equipment in Northern Virginia.

“We’ve done a number of job fairs, but that’s not been a great success,” said Danny Funderburk, learning and development specialist for the Chantilly-based company that does some work in the Fredericksburg area. “The best recruitment is word of mouth, employees saying what’s available. This will open up another avenue of people who have expressed interest in getting into this industry and are a target market for us.”

He said that the program will also give the company a better idea of the level of experience graduates have so it can start them off at the appropriate pay grade.

“One of the biggest things we run into, and where this will be of assistance, is applicants will tell us, ‘Yes, I have the experience,’ but we don’t have a way to verify it,” Funderburk said. “It creates a dilemma for us. Do we start them at the bottom and then have to move them up and redo the paperwork, or do we pay them what they say they’re capable of and then, when they don’t have that level of qualification, have to move them back down in pay?”

Finding people interested in a career as a heavy equipment operator wasn’t nearly as hard when the late William A. Hazel launched the company in 1964, Funderburk said. The construction industry was considered a great career opportunity at that time for high school graduates who didn’t intend to pursue a college degree.

It also offered a chance at a second career for those displaced as family farms merged, manufacturing plants downsized and mining operations shut down in the 1970s and 1980s.

Today, fewer and fewer people are interested in a career in construction, even at a time when that industry has recovered from the recession, the state has boosted funding for transportation projects and many people in the field are nearing retirement age.

Sisson blamed the education system for emphasizing college at the expense of vocational training. He said classes for heavy-equipment operators such as the ones Lord Fairfax will offer can help raise awareness of the job and its earning potential.

“You mean Johnny could run a bulldozer for $60,000 a year? I’m going to go over and try that,” he said. “Anybody can learn this business if you’re smart and hard working.”

Sisson said an entry-level position at his company pays $15 an hour, and employees can advance as they become more proficient. His “top guy” started out at the bottom more than 30 years ago now makes more than $100,000 a year.

“Another advantage [of a heavy equipment operator job] is that it’s local, and will remain local. You can’t outsource this,” said HCCA’s Garrison.

“There’s room for advancement to foreman, superintendent. You can make $50,000 a year running a machine, $80,000 as a superintendent,” he said. “For people that are running large parts of these companies, you can make six figures. You can go into business for yourself.”

Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407

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