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Advancing Apprenticeship

ENGINEERS NEWS – SPRING 2018 – Anyone paying a visit to the Operating Engineers 324 Construction Career Center in Howell this winter would have caught a striking, maybe even surprising sight: dozens of apprentices and journeymen filling classrooms and the seats of more equipment than ever before. In the midst of a construction boom, this is the most promising indicator. The excitement – and opportunities – are contagious.

OE324 is experiencing an invigoration like none ever seen. Currently, there are a record number of apprentices going through the Heavy Equipment Operator and Technician programs. The numbers will only be growing over the next few years. The reasons are many and vital.

“There are a few reasons,” says John Hartwell, Operating Engineers 324 Apprenticeship Coordinator. “Contractors want more apprentices, partially to fill in that age and skills gap that came from the recession. The ‘respect gap’ that discouraged some from entering the skilled trades is disappearing.”

“There has been some great assistance in encouraging skilled trades education from the state and federal level,” adds Training Director, John Osika. “And Doug (Stockwell) has driven investment into our training more than ever before.”

The last reason, Hartwell and Osika agree, is the most important: there is that much work around Michigan that needs to be done.
OE324 has steadily increased their efforts over the last several years to reach out to tomorrow’s Operators in schools and let them know about the kinds of careers the skilled trades offer. Having a consistent presence at Career Fairs around the state keeps the staff busy year-round, as a typical booth includes presentations, printed materials and now very often, the presence of a state-of-the-art simulator.

“The simulators definitely get their attention,” says Hartwell. “It gives the student something to experience, to sit in the seat and get a real idea of what operating an excavator, dozer or crane might mean.”

Of course, nothing beats seeing the real thing in person first hand. For that, the staff facilitates school tours regularly. Construction Career Days in May provides the largest number of students coming out and trying their hand at running real equipment. Last year was the 10th Michigan Construction Career Days. 2,000 students visited the Center with their schools and got to run excavators and dozers with instructors, volunteer journeypersons and apprentices to show them how its done and answer questions. 2018 promises to be the best year yet.

As those students become apprentices, they change the perception of what an Operating Engineer is, too. “Today’s apprentice is very tech savvy,” says Osika. “It’s a more diverse group than ever before. The culture of the industry has changed too.” That often means a wider variety of backgrounds, as well as more women entering the trades.

Apprentice Christina Morrish graduates this spring. Over the last 3 years, Morrish has worked on a wide array of projects, including pipelines, quarry, wind farm and gas distribution projects. Morrish gives the instructors all the credit in her success. “Before I came here, I had never operated machinery. I’m not from a farm. Everything I’ve been able to learn comes from the instructors. They taught me everything.”

“When I started, I wouldn’t have wanted my daughter to go into this (construction),” says Hartwell. “Now I definitely would because of changes in the safety, culture and greater diversity industry wide.”

The change hasn’t just been with the students. OE324 has been part of serious efforts to change perceptions and attitudes at the education level. By making presentations at events like the Michigan CTE Conference and to the Michigan Construction Teachers, an emphasis can be put on both wider career exploration and curriculums crafted to be of greater service to the skilled tradespeople of tomorrow. OE324 has seats on advisory Committees for many schools around vocational education. Districts and ISD’s like Clarkston, Grand Blanc, the Genesee Skills Center, Wixom and Oakland Schools all have committees where OE324 has an opportunity to share their experiences and advice for providing students the most necessary skills to excel in their construction careers post-graduation. In Lansing, Operating Engineers are among the loudest proponents of changes to policy advocating student’s opportunities to learn about and prepare for professional trades careers. Last year, a number of legislative successes occurred that will help students make more well-informed choices in Michigan.

Not all of the learning at the Construction Career Center is focused on apprentices, though. There are also a greater number of journeypersons there adding, updating and refreshing skills than ever before. Again, leadership at OE324 has long advocated this, and with the creation of the equipment donation program, created by Osika in 2017, the amount of equipment available for these classes is also at an all-time high.

The program encourages contractors to loan equipment to the Construction Career Center for a period of time for training purposes. When the term is up, OE324 performs maintenance on the equipment, including oil changes and new blades, and returns it.

Contractors have jumped on board, says Osika. “We now have 12 or 13 contractors. It makes all the difference – we have gotten excavators, loader, dozer and skid steer donations. It lets us help apprentices and journeypersons both.”

“All of our classes are packed. We’ll just keep adding more.”

More classes, more equipment and more apprentices -all are the signs of the most important thing: more work to be done. More to build, more to operate, more to maintain.