It’s a Thursday morning, and 17-year-old Colby Smith isn’t sitting in a classroom listening to a teacher or reading a textbook.
Instead, the Ladysmith Secondary School (LSS) Grade 12 student is outdoors, dressed in a hard hat and safety vest, and he is about to learn how to operate an excavator, grader and other heavy equipment.
Smith is one of 32 mid-Island high school students who participated in the new Heavy Metal Rocks three-day work experience program last week at the Vancouver Island University (VIU) Heavy Equipment Operations Site north of Ladysmith.
Nanaimo-Ladysmith and Parksville-Qualicum are the first school districts on Vancouver Island to offer the program to youth interested in working in the construction industry. The program, which has been running for several years in six other B.C. communities, gives students a hands-on opportunity to learn how to use heavy machinery safely.
The program ran Oct. 10-12. Students were supervised and mentored by experienced operators as they learned how to use 30 different pieces of heavy machinery, including excavators, bulldozers, graders, cranes, front-end loaders and dump trucks.
Students were divided into groups of two, and they spent an hour and 15 minutes at each station, learning about the machines and doing pre-trip inspections and then getting a chance to run them.
Smith liked the opportunity to work outside of the classroom.
“I thoroughly enjoyed running these machines,” he said, noting that the gravel truck was his favourite. “I really don’t want an office job. I really like being out there doing my grind and making a difference in the world.”
Smith heard about the program through his girlfriend, who told him he should do it.
He feels students gained independence throughout the program, as well as the ability to run the equipment on their own.
“It’s really good to get a taste of this course to see if you like it or not,” he said.
The students prepared for the work experience session by taking the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) program and the Construction Safety Training Systems (CSTS) course.
“The program itself is really good on your resumé,” said LSS Grade 12 student Brennan Bonar, who wants to be a mechanic.
Bonar felt it was a real benefit for students to receive their CSTS certificate.
“Most employers in B.C. and Alberta require you to have it, so it’s really helpful,” he said.
Bonar found out about Heavy Metal Rocks when Rick McDonough, School District 68’s career technical centre co-ordinator, contacted LSS’s counsellors, and they told every Grade 10 and 11 classroom about the program. Students had to fill out an application and go through an interview process.
Bonar thought the instructors, who were all heavy equipment operators who volunteered their time, were “awesome.”
“Anyone who wants to get into heavy equipment operation, I’d really advise them to do this,” he said.
Amy McGladdery, a Grade 12 student at LSS, applied for the Heavy Metal Rocks program because her school counsellor suggested it, and she thought it would be fun.
After a day and half, she liked every aspect of the program.
“It’s pretty fun operating the big machines,” she said.
She said it was fun learning how to drive the equipment, and being part of the program made her a bit more interested in pursuing a career using heavy equipment.
Dee Gallant, a grader operator with Island Pacific Logging who also operates excavators, taught students how to use an excavator to build a riprap wall for erosion control.
“It’s great to give a little something back,” said Gallant, who graduated from VIU’s basic heavy equipment operators foundation course in 2010 and did special classification in front-end loader, grader and excavator and also received her airbrake endorsement through VIU. “It’s nice to be able to be here, and the kids are very appreciative. They seem eager. They’re excited and seem to be having a good time. They’re getting a heck of a good grounding for free.”
Gallant says the biggest thing the operators were passing on to students was a general knowledge of what’s involved with operating heavy equipment amd a good building block for whatever career they are considering.
“When I first started taking the course, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into,” she recalled “When they gave me the keys to the excavator, I didn’t know what it was. This is giving them some exposure.”
McDonough hopes Heavy Metal Rocks will become an annual opportunity for local students.
“This is the first time making it real,” he said. “It seems to be going really well.”
Last spring, school district representatives from Nanaimo-Ladysmith and Parksville-Qualicum went to Prince George and observed how they do it there, explained McDonough.
“We’re trying to replicate it here,” he said.
Heavy Metal Rocks is the result of a partnership between WorkSafeBC, VIU, School District 68, School District 69, the Vancouver Island Construction Association and approximately 20 local companies.
“Heavy Metal Rocks definitely gives young people a good foundation if they’re considering a career in B.C.’s construction industry,” said David Gaskill, a WorkSafeBC occupational safety officer in the Nanaimo area. “The safety training these students are receiving will also help prepare them for work.”
Greg Baynton, CEO of the Vancouver Island Construction Association, noted in a press release that the construction industry will be looking to fill the 44,000 trade positions projected for B.C. in 2012-2020.
“Fifteen to 20 per cent of those positions will be on Vancouver Island, and they will include trade-certified equipment operators,” he said. “Construction is — and will continue to be — B.C.’s leading employment sector.”