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Union, training center team up to teach minority workers

By Brian Johnson
Dolan Media Newswires

Minneapolis — Shysen Turner doesn’t have a background in construction but he’s training to be a construction operating engineer, in part because the lure of the big machines was too much for him to resist.

Those humongous, dirt-moving excavators are especially appealing to the 35-year-old Maple Plain resident.

“That is my favorite toy so far,” he said with a laugh. “That is the kind that people don’t want to touch, because it is kind of intimidating looking. But I like it.”

Turner is among the 19 students who will graduate Friday from the first-ever class of an unusual training program that prepares prospective construction workers to safely operate backhoes, dozers, cranes and the like.

What’s unusual about the new program is that it’s operated jointly by a union (the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49) and an inner-city vocational training center (Summit Academy OIC).

Local 49 officials call it a groundbreaking initiative that came about after two years of planning and negotiating.

Gary Lindblad, training director for Local 49, which represents heavy equipment operators in Minnesota and the Dakotas, said the collaboration with Summit Academy is part of an effort to get more minorities involved in construction, especially highway work.

“There are other training centers, but none that have set up a collaborative between a minority entity and a union-based training center,” he said.

The program begins with 15 weeks of classroom work at Summit Academy in Minneapolis, followed by five weeks of hands-on training at Local 49’s 64,000-square-foot training center in Hinckley.

To qualify for the program, students must have a high school diploma or GED and pass a basic math test. Program topics include OSHA requirements and the art of digging trenches.

It’s not as easy as it may appear. A grades and stakes course, for example, demands an understanding of math, elevations, cut joints, sloping and other details, according to Turner.

“It’s not just digging dirt and moving it,” he said.

It’s no secret that contractors would like to see more dirt-moving these days.

Although the building industry is mired in a bad economy, and construction sector unemployment exceeds 20 percent nationally, Local 49 representatives said there will be a need for more equipment operators once the economy regains its footing and older workers start to hang it up.

“That is one reason we are doing this — because of our retiring members,” Lindblad said.

Meanwhile, if everything goes as planned, the Local 49/Summit Academy initiative will enlarge the pool of qualified minority workers, thus making it easier for contractors to meet project goals for a diverse work force.

Three of the program’s inaugural graduates are women.

Mari Simmons, 35, has worked mostly in offices until now. But construction appealed to her for a variety of reasons, including the exhilaration of working outside and driving the big machines.

“It’s exciting,” she said. “At the beginning of the day you get to work on a project. And at the end of the day you get to see your results, your accomplishments.”

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