Ben Baldock, vice president of operations for Bowling Green’s Scott & Murphy Construction, is seeing no shortage in projects requiring heavy equipment operators these days. In fact, if his company’s bulldozers and excavators are idle, it’s due not to a shortage of work but of workers.
“That’s really probably the hardest type of employee to find right now – people who can run heavy equipment,” Baldock said. “We can buy 10 excavators, but you have to find qualified people to operate them.”
The trend is echoed by Carter Walden, chief training officer for Tompkinsville’s Cleary Construction, who said: “With the amount of work that is available, we are currently in crisis mode when looking for skilled operators and laborers.”
Help is on the way for Baldock, Walden and others in the construction business.
Thanks to a grant from the Kentucky Cabinet for Education and Workforce Development, local construction companies have a new tool to help them spark interest in heavy equipment careers and train those who are interested.
That $106,000 grant, procured by the South Central Kentucky Workforce Development Board in conjunction with a group of builders called Kentucky Construction Operator Recruitment and Development, has been used to purchase a Caterpillar Simulator that is already being used at career fairs and other events.
Baldock said the device, which can simulate both a bulldozer and an excavator, has the potential to reverse what he sees as a dangerous trend in his line of work.
“There is really a big age gap in heavy equipment operators,” he said. “Probably about 80 percent of them are over 55 years old. Young people don’t think about it as a career. They don’t know the potential earnings.”
Saying skilled heavy equipment operators can make $85,000 or so per year, Baldock expects the new simulator to attract some younger people to the field.
“We were just looking for a new way to spark interest in the occupation of heavy equipment operator,” he said. “An Xbox controller is a lot like the controls for bulldozers or excavators.”
Baldock said the simulator is being used throughout the region at job fairs and career days and for training new employees.
“It’s as close as you can get to the real thing,” he said. “It’s just like running a real one.”
Enticing more people to run real bulldozers and excavators was the goal of the grant, said Robert Boone, the workforce development board’s president and CEO.
“Construction employers are having real difficulty finding employees with the needed skill set,” Boone said. “There is a lack of emphasis on careers like that. I hope this can drive interest.”
Boone said the simulator will be used often at career exploration events at local high schools, but it won’t be limited to teenagers.
“The grant was written with high school students in mind,” he said, “but it can be used for adults as well. If the technical college (Southcentral Kentucky Community and Technical College) wants to utilize the simulator, they can do it.”
The grant for the simulator is one of two state grants procured by the workforce board that Boone hopes will help address a workforce shortage. He also helped get a $20,000 grant for military transition outreach that fits with the goals of the workforce board.
That money will be used to develop a “military landing page” website that will provide information about the Bowling Green region to those transitioning out of the military. It will also help pay for printed materials and travel to nearby military facilities.
“At just Fort Campbell and Fort Knox, there are 425 people getting out of the service each month,” said Jon Sowards, the workforce board’s vice president of operations. “That’s a huge talent pipeline.
“We have to figure out how to tap into that. Clarksville and Nashville are doing a good job of targeting those folks. We need to do better.”
Boone said the grant funding will allow for more outreach to those transitioning from the military into the civilian workforce.
“That’s the culture we’re trying to build,” he said. “We’re going to reach out to these individuals instead of waiting for them to come to us.”