Heavy Duty

Angela Nikal steps out of her machine while learning the ropes of the Heavy Equipment Operators course at the Terrace Motocross track, March 27. - Janine Workman
Angela Nikal steps out of her machine while learning the ropes of the Heavy Equipment Operators course at the Terrace Motocross track, March 27.
— image credit: Janine Workman

AS INDUSTRIAL activity begins to boom in the northwest, people are lining up to take part in the heavy equipment operator course at Northwest Community College.

College trades chair Brian Badge said interest in the three-year-old program has doubled since last year.

“I think it is because of the amount of work available now, and what will be coming over the next year and the next 10 years,” explained Badge on the high demand for the program.

“This is the number one projected trade over the next ten years, it’s going to be highest in demand.”

The course is a two-part series with heavy equipment operator fundamentals required as a prerequisite. Students study the theory behind operating heavy equipment and have time to practice on simulator machines at the college before heading out to try the machines in real life. The learning-ground is the Terrace motocross track, out past the Northwest Regional airport, where students have been removing snow and shaping the track.

This practical component is where the course bottlenecks, as there is only space for five students at a time who need to clock in 15 hours on each of the five machines at the site.

Students last week were learning under the instruction of Frank Otterbine, a 36-year veteran in the  heavy equipment world who came out of retirement to teach the program after enrolment demands required another instructor last year.

“We are so busy here we are going to be double shifting,” said Otterbine, explaining that as soon as there is enough day light, another instructor will be out at the track working with students on a second 7.5 hour shift.

Otterbine has worked as an operator in mines all over B.C. and says now is a great time to be learning the business in the northwest.

“We’re training young people to fill these positions instead of bringing people in from other areas of the province,” he  explained.  “There is lots of work for these young people when they get out.”

He teaches his students everything, from how to clean up an oil spill to how to navigate machinery through an obstacle course.

With each machine costing close to a half a million dollars and safety issues at play, it is essential that students have a solid understanding of the equipment before they get behind the wheel.

“They’re very ready to work, we teach them everything,” Otterbine said.

CeeJay Turner, 18, from Hazelton is taking the course at the same time as his brother Chris.

“I figured it was a good experience,”  said Turner, who already works as diamond driller helper. Turner explained that the course is just one more way to add to his abilities in the workforce. He points out that with steady demand for operators, the training is a

good thing to have as a back up career.

Angel Nikal, 25, from Moricetown near Smithers is also in the course and says taking it was a part of her switch from administration to trades.

“I couldn’t stand the office anymore, I saw an opportunity and I jumped at it,” she said.

As a mother of a four-year-old Nikal hopes to stay relatively close to home once she graduates, and anticipates no problems finding work, citing opportunities at a mine near Houston and at projects near Dease Lake.

“I feel like I am definitely ready to be out there,” Nikal said.

Mark Carlick, 40, is from Smithers and also a student in the class.

Carlick said he decided to take the program after doing all he could in the woods industry.

He feels there is more growth available as an equipment operator.  “Because of the timing you can move up the ladder faster,” Carlick explained.

The father of two, he feels the timing to be graduating from the program now is just right.

“I decided to give myself an early birthday present,” he joked about taking the program.

Ron Clark, 41, is from Hazelton and has experience driving a haul truck in mines already.

He took the operator program to open up more opportunity on the job by broadening his equipment knowledge.

“I think it’s awesome, doing the book work and learning to build roads - it’s well worth it,” Clark said of the program.

He said it is a good time to be in the program and is certainly not concerned about finding work after.

“I’ll  be applying all over the place,” Clark said.

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