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Allegheny

Construction union using video games to interest kids in apprenticeships

Bob Bauder
| Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018, 10:03 a.m.
A screenshot from ‘Dig in: An Excavator Game’ developed by Simcoach Games for International Union of Operating Engineers Local 66 to interest kids in a career in construction.
Simcoach Games
A screenshot from ‘Dig in: An Excavator Game’ developed by Simcoach Games for International Union of Operating Engineers Local 66 to interest kids in a career in construction.

Pittsburgh’s low unemployment rate and pending retirements have prompted a local construction union to come up with a creative way to recruit candidates for the union’s apprenticeship program.

International Union of Operating Engineers Local 66 partnered with Simcoach Games, based in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, to develop free game apps that simulate operating heavy machinery as tools for educating and recruiting school kids.

The gaming company developed “Dig in: An Excavator Game” and “Dig In: A Dozer Game” for the union. They introduced their first game, “Hook: A Tower Crane Game” a little over a year ago.

“We’re trying to educate kids who are in middle school and maybe even a little earlier just to let people, and especially the kids, know there are good, long lasting careers in the construction industry,” said Jim Kunz, Local 66’s business manager. “We realized that we had to find other ways to communicate with the generation that doesn’t communicate in the ways that we used to in the past.”

The games are available as free downloads in app stores.

Players move dirt, dig holes and make lifts using their thumbs to control the “joy sticks” through varying levels of proficiency and difficulty. They also receive messages connecting them to real life apprenticeship opportunities.

With construction booming in the region, union locals are advertising on television, radio and social media in an attempt to attract candidates, according to industry officials.

Kunz said Local 66 has 375 apprentices — the most ever — going through its training center in New Alexandria. He said pending Baby Boomer retirements and a need for construction workers is driving the influx. Apprentices are in the program for four years and receive paid classroom and on-the-job training.

They’ll can earn as much as $60 per hour working after they graduate, Kunz said.

Tom Melcher, business manager of the Pittsburgh Regional Building and Construction Trades Council, said all building trade apprenticeships are operating at full capacity.

“To be quite honest with you, every apprenticeship program right now is just overwhelmed,” he said. “There’s so much work out there. Every apprenticeship school right now is recruiting heavily.”

The unemployment rate in Southwestern Pennsylvania hit its lowest rate on record in May at 3.9 percent and union officials say more work is on the horizon. Melcher said thousands will find jobs building the Shell petrochemical plant underway in Beaver County and Pittsburgh is booming with new buildings.

He noted that a new terminal is planned for the Pittsburgh International Airport along with new hospitals in the works at Highmark and UPMC.

“All the schools are doubling and tripling the apprenticeships that are going on because of the manpower shortages,” Melcher said. “Everybody needs people.”

Jessica Trybus, chief games officer for Simcoach Games, said the company specializes in developing apps for workforce development and career awareness.

“The idea is really to even have a small game that’s fun and engages someone into possibilities. That can be for an industry, an occupation or a very specific skill set,” she said.

Kunz said the union has just begun tracking response to the games.

“The stigma of the last 40 or 50 years and this idea that you have to go to college to be successful isn’t true anymore,” he said. “I’ve got apprentices making $40,000, $50,000 a year.”

Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Bob at 412-765-2312, bbauder@tribweb.com or via Twitter @bobbauder.

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