Changing Lives at the OE Regional Training Program

From a distance the surprising sight of multi-colored tower cranes crawlers and mobile cranes sprouting from the brown hills of Ellensburg looks artistic like an off-the-width=336beaten-track sculpture garden.

But even though they look great the dozens of pieces of heavy equipment – cranes loaders forklifts trucks pavers and more – at the Operating Engineers’ Regional Training Facility are there for an important and very practical reason: To develop the next generation of operating engineers. The apprenticeship program offered at the facility is sponsored by the International Union of Operating Engineers and AGC of Washington.

Turning out highly-skilled apprentices has always been a goal of the program but it’s taken on more urgency lately as some segments of the industry are beginning to feel the pinch of the looming workforce shortage. The shortage is expected to get worse as the economy rebounds for a variety of reasons including the fact that the median age of construction and extraction workers in 2012 was 41.4 based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data up from 38.2 in 2007 and 37.9 in 2000. Plus many construction workers left the industry altogether during the Great Recession and construction careers have fallen lower on the wish list of younger generations.

Mike Lee President of Lakeside Industries is a Trustee of the OE apprentice training program. “As we – hopefully – have an increase in the business cycle we know we will be facing a workforce shortage” Lee says. “Training new operators is key for our business and the industry and this facility provides the unique ability to train people on the right equipment.”

Training takes place in classrooms and 200 acres of space for real-world heavy equipment training. There’s ample room for apprentices to practice each function from asphalt paving to manning all-terrain telescopic boom forklifts to tower crane operation.

Overseeing the operation is Ole Fjellstad who takes pride in the state-of-the-art equipment as well as the competitive nature of the program. “The program provides great opportunities but it’s not easy to get into” Fjellstad says. “This year we had 150 applications and only 52 entered the 8-week heavy equipment training series.”

Applicants must meet minimum requirements including having a high school diploma or GED and are then screened through an interview process. After a week of orientation and safety training students spend eight weeks working with the heavy equipment. Upon successfully completing the program students are dispatched as apprentices from the Ellensburg training facility.

“It’s about more than teaching to run equipment” Fjellstad adds. “We make sure instructors know to instill safety so that when apprentices leave here they have the confidence to stop rather than have an accident. We want them to learn it’s not okay to wing it.”

The facility provides journeymen training as well. “The apprenticeship program is important but equally important is journeyman training” says Fjellstad. “Maybe someone wants to work on another piece of equipment – they can learn that skill here.”

Fjellstad believes the best trend is the interest the program has been receiving from ex-military. “The service men and women have been fantastic” he says. “We do a huge job fair at Joint Base Lewis McCord (JBLM) and it’s been great. Those from the military are afforded every opportunity here and they can do very well.”

During his year and a half as Administrator Fjellstad has made numerous improvements to the program including new forklift training. “The forklift program has taken a huge leap with the inclusion of telehandlers” he says. “Our instructor Al Rollins really opened students’ eyes – mine too – about how critical the job is. Everyone on a jobsite goes to forklift operators because they need to know where everything is. Now the forklift training is really gaining in popularity.”

More changes are in the works. Fjellstad wants to introduce a Class B CDL class which can be completed in one week providing quick training to fill the need for operators manning equipment that doesn’t require a Class A CDL. “On-site water trucks and grease trucks are examples of equipment that require only a Class B CDL” he says. “It makes sense to have a shorter class just for these.”

Fjellstad has been administrator for about a year and a half and he’s impressed the program Trustees. “The first time I met Ole he struck me as a leader with a good grasp of what’s needed” said Lee. “Ole is a remarkable young man. He has an excellent vision and has done an excellent job hiring good people and instructors and developing the programs.”

Fjellstad is quick to give the credit to his staff and instructors. “This place is amazing” he says. “Our instructors are mentors and we treat students with respect. This facility changes peoples’ lives – they walk out with the confidence you get from acquiring new valuable skills.”

Photo: OE Regional Training Program Administrator Ole Fjellstad and AGC Labor Relations Director Doug Peterson.