Heavy equipment apprentices anticipate construction boom, train near New Alexandria
On 230 rolling acres near New Alexandria, mighty pieces of machinery roam the earth like large yellow dinosaurs.
The fleet of 75 vehicles — bulldozers, graders, backhoes, cranes, rollers, excavators — is there for the training of a growing cohort of apprentices, many of whom are anticipating a boom in construction partly tied to the region's oil and gas industry.
"There's the need for qualified operators," said Dennis Manown, a 27-year operator of heavy equipment. "It's a good time to be in construction — not just operating engineers but all the crafts and trades."
Manown is training site coordinator at the Western Pennsylvania Operating Engineers Joint Apprenticeship and Training Program, a Salem Township school funded by labor and management since 1971. A gleaming $8 million building, opened in 2013, and a recent increase in enrollment from 200 to 300 apprentices attest to the fact that construction activity, partly spurred by Western Pennsylvania's energy industry, is on the rise, officials say.
"All the journeymen and apprentices come to that little corner of Westmoreland County to do the training," Steven Columbus, the program's administrative manager, recently told a group of energy industry leaders at Westmoreland County Community College.
Columbus said the program also has attracted attention from the International Union of Operating Engineers' headquarters in Washington, D.C., which has been sending out-of-state operators to Westmoreland County for specialized training in pipeline construction.
The school, one of 16 joint apprenticeship training centers in Western Pennsylvania, recently purchased more land in Salem to accommodate the growth, he said.
The local employment outlook for operators of "big yellow diggy things" is promising, Columbus said, primarily because of three areas of activity:
• The Shell Chemical Appalachia ethane "cracker" plant in Beaver County and related petrochemical facilities;
• The Tenaska Westmoreland Generating Station near Smithton and other natural gas power plants;
• The Sunoco Logistics Mariner East 2 pipeline and other pipeline construction projects.
Although the projects represent billions of dollars in capital investment, energy sector deals have been on the decline in recent years, mostly because of an overabundance of natural gas and low prices, the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance said in a recent study.
"We're not going to have the boom we had in 2011-2012, but we're going to see a nice uptick and steady climb in natural gas work, at least for the next four or five years," said James Kunz, business manager of IUOE Local 66. "It's definitely good for our members, but it's also good for the region."
Kunz estimates that at peak construction in 2018-19, the Shell cracker plant will need 400 heavy-equipment operators, including 200 cranes. Local trade unions hope to supply 20 percent of the construction labor requirements with apprentices, according to the Builders Guild of Western Pennsylvania.
Local 66, which covers 33 counties in Pennsylvania and three in Ohio, also expects to provide 600 operating engineers for the Mariner East 2 pipeline and 40 to 60 operators for each of the gas-fired power plants under development in the region.
"There's probably half a dozen to a dozen that are well along or in the planning stages. That's going to be the new trend — all these smaller gas-fired power plants scattered all over the state," Kunz said. "It's just driven by economics: Natural gas is so much cheaper (than coal)."
Among the 275 operator apprentices training in Westmoreland County are three brothers from Oil City, Venango County — Jeremiah Grams, 38, Dave Grams, 30, and Caleb Grams, 22.
Jeremiah and Dave are entering their fourth and final year of apprenticeship, while their younger brother is preparing for his third year. All three, although still apprentices, are working in the field as operators.
"Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to work equipment and loved cranes. I always thought it would be cool to be a crane operator," said Jeremiah Grams. "Now I'm here doing it."
Jeremiah, previously a truck driver and home builder, started his apprenticeship on an excavator and then moved up to a tower crane, working on new dormitory construction at Penn State.
Dave Grams previously worked at a juvenile correctional facility but felt the need for a change. A friend who belongs to Local 66 told him and his brother about the tuition-free apprenticeship program, and they decided to enroll.
"I never ran any piece of equipment before I started," Dave Grams said, noting that he has been trained on a grader, a bulldozer and a crane. "It's great here — you get to work, you get to make some money. At the same time, you're learning and you have a nice safety net."
Operator apprentices must take five to seven weeks a year of classroom and training site instruction, while also accumulating 4,000 hours of on-the-job training over four years. Even after they reach journeyman status, they can earn additional certifications and take more safety training, Columbus said.
Apprentices, once they complete their orientation, can take an entry-level position with one of about 500 area contractors that are signatories to Local 66.
Fourth-year apprentice Charlie Boyer, 25, of Irwin started as an "oiler," or assistant, with the McKinney Drilling Co. of Delmont. The company does foundation drilling for buildings, bridges, utility poles and cellphone towers.
"At first, you're around the equipment. You see how the machinery operates. Then you get seat time," he said.
Boyer said he has learned how to operate a bulldozer, a backhoe and a forklift, among other machinery. "In these four years, you're expected to keep progressing," he said.
Boyer graduates June 1 and hopes to continue with McKinney, which has 13 offices in eight states. Regardless of where he goes, he remains a member of Local 66.
Dave and Jeremiah Grams are working on the construction of a gas-fired power plant in Lordstown, Ohio. Caleb has been training on an 80-foot crane in New Alexandria, when he's not working on the Mariner East 2 pipeline in eastern Pennsylvania.
"It's a field of work I couldn't get in without the apprenticeship," Caleb said. "They do a pretty decent job of preparing you."
Aspiring heavy-equipment operators who do not want to go the union route can get training through their employer or through Associated Builders and Contractors, a national trade association that represents nonunion shops.
The Western Pennsylvania Chapter of ABC offers accredited training through the National Center for Construction Education & Research. The latter was created in 1996 by the construction industry to develop standardized curriculum and assessments for the skilled trades, said spokeswoman Jennifer Wilkerson.
ABC Workforce Development Director Mike Glavin said 80 percent of the construction industry workforce in Pennsylvania chooses not to join a union and, so, needs training options outside organized labor.
"The bulk of our members in ABC have in-house training programs and train their workforce in-house," Glavin said. "Safety training is part and parcel of craft training, often right at the very beginning."
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @shuba_trib.