A proposal to license heavy equipment operators is overkill for an industry already with plenty to lose if the wrong person is running a big machine, according to a 31-year construction veteran.
“There are some operators that shouldn’t be operators, and I understand that you don’t want every Tom, Dick and Harry jumping on these things,” said Allen Weinkauf, president of Schofield-based Integrity Grading and Excavating Inc. “But you figure owners are paying $1 million a pop for this equipment, so they’re not going to be putting every Tom, Dick and Harry on there in the first place.”
But the fact that anyone could operate the equipment is one reason why labor unions support a bill by state Rep. Joe Parisi, D-Madison, that would require licenses for crane and heavy equipment operators working on public works projects that use prevailing wages.
The latest version of the bill, which is subject to ongoing negotiations, would target operators of excavators, grinders, shouldering machines, milling machines, planers, graders and scrapers. The equipment would have to weigh more than 26,000 pounds.
The combination of licensing in one bill for crane and heavy equipment operators is a sticking point for the Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin Inc.
“If there were two separate bills, we probably could have worked something out,” said Jim Boullion, AGC government affairs director. “There’s always risk involved in this line of work, or even when you drive a car, but this legislation just makes it harder to get into the industry.”
It’s too soon to argue that point, said Robb Kahl, executive director of Construction Business Group, a joint labor-management organization. Details of the bill, such as years of experience required before receiving a license, are still uncertain, he said.
“I think a lot of people already using these machines would have enough hours or on-the-job experience to be grandfathered in,” Kahl said. “And even after this bill is signed, there’s a two-year window to meet the hour requirements.”
But a licensing bureau that tallies hours is unnecessary when construction executives know their businesses depend on matching skill sets to jobs, said Thomas DeBeck, president of Middleton-based Speedway Sand & Gravel Inc., which works on municipal projects in the Madison area.
“Just because someone has a license doesn’t make them acceptable,” he said.
But Kahl said without licensing, an untrained worker technically could hop on a crane or piece of heavy equipment. He said that probably does not happen often, but the state needs regulations to make sure job sites are safe.
“It’s pretty easy to make problems for a lot of people if you don’t know how to use a 40,000-pound piece of equipment,” Kahl said.
Weinkauf said with his years in the industry, he’ll likely be grandfathered in if licensing becomes law. But that does not mean he wants the license for himself or his workers.
“It’s not going to make us safer,” he said. “We hire experienced operators and bring some up through apprenticeship programs.”