Northeast Iowa Community College (NICC) is using the popularity of hands-on simulation to recruit students to a career in the construction industry.
Roger Solberg, an independent trainer-consultant for NICC and owner of Equipment Operator Training, LLC (EOT), is taking the Construction Equipment Operator Mobile Simulator Trailer across Iowa. Solberg said the simulator trailer, equipped with two construction simulators, includes technology that introduces kids to construction careers by simulating operating heavy equipment such as a dozer, excavator, motor grader and end loader.
“The simulators include virtual reality goggles along with moving platforms that simulate what it’s like to be in and operate the machine,” Solberg said. “Our goal is to get the younger generation interested in the construction industry by working with educators in the high schools.” In partnership with NICC, Solberg uses the mobile simulator to show students a career path they may not know is open to them.
At a recent stop at South Winneshiek High School in Calmar, Solberg noted “I’ve tried it myself, and it’s quite realistic,” he said. “It’s not enough to make you an equipment operator, but it will help you be more comfortable when an operator finally gets on a machine.”
According to Solberg, students are often surprised at the technology used in modern construction and their interest is encouraging. He said it’s important for students to be interested in the trades because “the older generation needs the younger generation to step in and take over.”
JB Holland Construction partnered with NICC to apply for an Employer Innovation Grant to secure partial funding of one simulator. Diane Krentz, controller with JB Holland Construction in Decorah, is one of the companies initially involved in the project.
“JB Holland Construction provided the funding for the project,” Krentz said. “Croell, Inc, was a partner in the project by offering to sell their CAT simulator at a reduced rate to NICC and JBH. We purchased a custom-made trailer from Alum-Line to transport the simulator and the project was off and running. Another round of Employer Innovation Grant funding made it possible to purchase another simulator in the trailer beside the original unit, and to upgrade the virtual reality software.”
Krentz said NICC is doing a great job of coordinating with high schools around the state to demonstrate the virtual reality simulators to prospective students and potential industry employees. NICC also invites local construction companies near each high school to talk to students. More than 400 students and over 30 educators have gone through the simulator and several schools requested that Solberg make a return trip because of heavy student interest. Krentz added “NICC is an amazing partner in meeting our employee training needs and recruitment of employees. They have provided an invaluable opportunity for contractors statewide to educate and recruit the younger generation into construction careers.”
NICC Vice President of Business and Community Solutions Dr. Wendy Mihm-Herold said return trips to high schools proves the simulator trailer is accomplishing its mission.
“It’s generating some excitement,” Mihm-Herold said. “As a result, we just did what’s called an ‘Earn and Learn’ Career Pathway Certificate training. The students will be using the simulator a bit, but they’ll also be driving skid loaders, forklifts, etc. The students will do some virtual training, hands-on work and some classroom learning. They also work for companies like JB Holland while they’re in school.”
Ten students are going through the NICC class right now, and five of them are employed at JB Holland through the “Earn and Learn” Program. Krentz said that means the construction simulator has been very effective at reaching students, many who are surprised at their future earning potential.
“As a parent myself, I can say firsthand that this is a great opportunity for students that don’t want to pursue a two or four-year degree or for those that are attending college, a great way to earn money for college tuition during the summer,” Krentz added. “The five students we employ are getting paid $18 /hour to learn while they are in high school attending classes. They are able to do both at the same time.”
Solberg is enjoying what he’s doing to help the industry and kids who may be looking for a way forward. “They get a big smile on their face when they try these machines for the first time,” he said. “I really enjoy it when that happens. We take the simulator to all of the high schools in Iowa. I even have some high schools in Minnesota and South Dakota who want us to bring the trailer. It’s important because a lot of construction companies in the Midwest can’t find enough qualified workers.”