As our crew takes a tour of the Interior Heavy Equipment Operator School (IHE) in Winfield, British Columbia, one of the students “takes five” and locks out his John Deere 310SK Backhoe to greet us. “Here, take a look,” he declares proudly.?“I just finished my first rock wall.”?He kids around with us as we admire his work: “Jeez, I’m trying to learn a new skill here,” he laughs. “And all of a sudden I have the paparazzi photographing me.”
The thing that immediately strikes you when you visit IHE is that the students really want to be here — they enjoy being here. They know they are making a life-changing decision that’s taking them on an exciting new journey.
Training a Heavy-Equipment Operator
Heavy-equipment operator jobs are plentiful in Canada. In British Columbia alone, over 10,000 new positions are expected to open in the next 10 years as the mining industry takes off. Thousands more are needed to support Alberta’s ever-expanding oil-sands reserves.
That’s where IHE comes in. The school trains hundreds of operators a year at its locations in British Columbia and Alberta. Working with the industry, their mission is to have students fully prepared for immediate employment as a heavy-equipment operator.
Students get real-world training on excavators, dozers, articulated dump trucks, graders, wheel loaders, and rubber-tire backhoes. Students learn rock-wall building, various trenching techniques, road activation and deactivation, stockpiling, back-filling, slope trenching, leveling, laser-level use, and more. They are also required to learn and perform their own maintenance and operation checks.
“We started out with one machine, one student, one instructor, and one vision,” says Mike Hansen, general manager, IHE. “That vision has always been to provide entry-level training to students that fill the need for companies looking for qualified operators. Many companies hire our students right out of our school because they know they have a greater success rate than green operators with no prior training.”
According to Hansen, overwhelming feedback from the industry is that it wants hands-on training; therefore, IHE does not invest in simulators, but rather real equipment. “I’m really proud of that. Our students’ success is our success.”?Today the school runs 69 pieces of heavy equipment at its two locations, including 26 pieces of John Deere.
Life-Changing Experience For Some
On any given day, you’ll find more than a hundred students training at IHE locations. Courses range from three weeks on a single machine up to 12 weeks on all six machines. That’s up to 235 hours of seat time, or 380 total course hours, including classroom theory.
The average ages of the students range from 25 to 40 years old. All are seeking new heavy-equipment operator jobs and many are pursuing second or third careers.
“You never know who is going to come through that door,” says Christine Bay, IHE’s business development manager. “They come from all walks of life, from overseas, from up north in the Yukon, from the United States. But they all come with a common goal — to get in-the-seat training and entry-level experience. They all want to change their own lives and the lives of their families for the better.”
Bay shares stories of students who have turned their lives around. “We’ve had students who were living in tents in the woods because they couldn’t afford room and board. A year or two later these same students pull up to our office in brand-new trucks, and they are so grateful they were able to turn their lives around. And that all started here.”
One of those students was 65 years old. “He took our grader course. We had to front him a pair of his boots for his first job — grading a diamond-mine road up north. He paid for them out of his first paycheck — there were a lot of tears of gratitude. In just three weeks he was able to drastically turn his life around.”
Other students are looking to change career paths. “We had a helicopter pilot who couldn’t maintain enough flying hours and was looking for an alternate career path. She took our excavator course and ended up being a very good operator. Shortly after completing the course, she took a job in Alberta.”
The percentage of female students has increased in the last three years from 10 to 14 percent. Bay shares one of many stories about women who have successfully completed the program.
“A few years ago, we had a woman who was unhappy after two days of training and said she couldn’t complete the course. We promised her a full refund if she still didn’t like it after the first week was completed. Well, she did complete it and did like it — and was hired by a construction company in Edmonton. Last we heard she was a heavy-equipment operator in Australia.”