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The Best for the Best

Partnership helps provide latest GPS-based solutions — and more — to union’s national training center.

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Given job seekers’ penchant for dot com websites such as Indeed, Monster, Glassdoor, etc., the idea of skilled workers operating out of a union hall — in fact, the very concept of unions themselves — might seem archaic. The truth is, however, unionism is experiencing a real resurgence, with formerly non-union workplaces organizing and many unions themselves boasting memberships in the hundreds of thousands. One of those, the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), serves roughly 380,000 members from the construction, building/industrial and service industries, as well as others from the health care and petrochemical industries. To help members sharpen their skills — or stay abreast of changes in their respective fields — the IUOE offers a series of comprehensive training programs at their flagship site in Crosby, Texas. And, in order to ensure that the technology on which they are learning remains fully updated and current, the organization has entered into agreements with key equipment manufacturers to make that happen. The end result is a workforce that is better trained and more capable as IUOE answers the call from the industries it serves. 

Comfort Level

The notion of a company providing new equipment to a union for the purpose of worker  training might at first glance seem confusing. After all, companies sell their wares to the equipment-buying public — either directly or through a series of dealers, and a union training center is neither of those. What it is, however, is a collection of skilled workers, many of whom will be called upon to use a particular machine, technology or solution in the course of his or her work. Being unskilled in that area can mean an immediate loss of income. To that end, it behooves the union to see that its members are equipped with what is colloquially called the “latest and greatest,” and, according to Joe Voelkel, OEM Support Specialist for Topcon Positioning Systems, one of the IUOE’s contributing partners, companies like Topcon make that happen for them.

“My role for Topcon as it relates to IUOE calls for me to wear a couple different hats,” he said. “From an equipment perspective, we have a three-year agreement with the union to provide GNSS receivers, rovers, field computers, etc., as well as machine control systems. In addition, we are providing instructional support to ensure that those tasked with teaching union members at their respective locals are well-versed — even on the newer solutions. Doing so helps ensure that, when a company using Topcon solutions calls the local saying they need an operator, that local can confidently send them a worker well-trained in that technology.”

Much of the need for Topcon’s presence at the National Training Center is driven by demand from the union’s locals themselves, added Voelkel. As the number of Topcon systems and solutions continues to grow at job sites throughout the country, inquiries for skilled operators familiar with the Topcon environment have grown as well. “We recently heard from a local in southern Illinois that felt it needed to start educating its people on Topcon units to meet the increased demand,” he said. “Our presence here is helping ensure that.”

“From an equipment perspective, we have a three-year agreement with the union to provide GNSS receivers, rovers, field computers, etc., as well as machine control systems."

Joe Voelkel

Two-Way Street

The arrangement between the IUOE and its partner manufacturers is a mutually beneficial one. The union, obviously, gains a much-better caliber of worker, comfortable with the latest technology — key in meeting the needs of companies reaching out to the locals. The participating companies, on the other hand, gain increased exposure and promote a better understanding of their equipment or service while, at the same time, sharing in that opportunity to contribute to the quest for a better-trained workforce.

That last point is certainly not lost on Chris Treml, the executive director of the National Training Fund which oversees the operation at Crosby. 

“The opportunity to offer hands-on training of this caliber to our membership, is invaluable,” he said. “Our partnership with Topcon helps ensure that any local — even those that don’t have the financial capability to offer the latest technology, all the time — can make those benefits available to their members. We offer that to the entire membership.”

As if to underscore the success of the program, he recalled a phone call he’d had with a member who was making plans to come to the Center for classes. “I asked her why she was signing up and she said that the last job she was on had machine control equipment and she was lost. She said: ‘I need that class to get me up to speed so I don’t have to refuse work simply because I’m not trained on the machine technology.’ So, yes, the classes are paying direct dividends to our membership.”

Using Their Moodle

Learning is often enhanced by the ease at which it can be done and today’s technology offers scores of applications and platforms to help facilitate the learning process. That premise was recently put into play by a number of union representatives at the IUOE training center (instructors themselves) who were actively involved in educational sessions with Joe Voelkel and inquired about taking things a step further.

“My classes at the National Training Center lean heavily on segments from Topcon’s eLearning online curriculum,” said Voelkel. “We give participants a key to access the content at the learning portal being used for those classroom sessions. While they found that approach to be extremely helpful, some thought it could be further enhanced by allowing them to link those sessions to Moodle, the open-source learning platform they use.”

Voelkel said he ran the idea past Chris Treml who agreed that utilizing Moodle to its fullest was a great idea, citing a recent experience he’d had. “I got a request from a member in a class who was looking for CDL pre-trip training,” he said. “I knew all the material he needed was already on Moodle, so we told him to get in touch with his training director so he could get immediate access to it. It is a powerful tool.”

“Our partnership with Topcon helps ensure that any local — even those that don’t have the financial capability to offer the latest technology, all the time — can make those benefits available to their members. We offer that to the entire membership.”

Chris Treml

Sharing Platforms

Although Voelkel had some immediate concerns — having material uploaded to Moodle that had not yet been updated at the Topcon eLearning site came to mind — he also saw that there were areas that could be ideal for such a transfer.

“Basics like the principles of GPS and how machines work are not going to change and could easily be implemented into the union instructors’ Moodle environment,” he said. “I had a discussion with Chris and, working with Ben Huber, a senior manager in professional services for Topcon, we exported those two courses to the person who handles Moodle for the union. Now they have what is essentially a duplicate of what is on our eLearning site — the difference being that, with Moodle, they can administer. So a training director from any local can use those courses as part of their training back home. 

Particularly important to Voelkel, is the fact that the messaging is uniform; everyone is learning the same info. “And upon completion of the course, they get a certificate acknowledging what they’ve accomplished which can be helpful as they move forward in their careers.”

Continuing Education

For those taking part in classes at the Center, the journey to a better-informed workplace need not stop there either. Voelkel said that union members who start out with those basic courses can move on to additional areas of learning.

“We put a link on each of the courses that points directly to our eLearning portal,” he said. “There, newly-armed with the basics they’ve learned, they can gain additional familiarity with the solutions themselves — the control boxes, how to load files, ways to check grade, etc. And, because the activity it is now at our site, we can help them enroll in subsequent classes if they’d like — even re-take any section.” 

Although he does get positive feedback on a regular basis, Voelkel said he was recently contacted by a union member who wanted to pass along some firsthand affirmation. “I had a guy from a Pittsburgh area local reach out a little while back,” he said. “He wanted to let me know that what I’d shown him several months prior — how to transfer files — came in handy when a control box on the machine needed a switch out. He copied things to a thumb drive, made the transfer and looked like a hero. That’s always nice to hear.”

The NTC’s Treml said he is very pleased with the way things have gone since the partnership with Topcon began and would just like to see it continue. “We are always first on the list when new technology comes out and Joe makes sure I am involved in it as it’s rolled out here. We already have a schedule in place for our “Train the Trainer Classes” that Joe will come down and teach throughout the year. So far, everything that I’ve asked of Topcon — and then some — has come to fruition. And what’s good for us is ultimately great for our membership.”

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