Last summer, Theus Dillon moved with his wife and three sons from Louisville, Kentucky, to Atlanta. He found work as a warehouse attendant earning $10 an hour – but that was hardly enough to make ends meet.
One day after paying their water bill, his wife happened to stop by the DeKalb Workforce Development office next door where she found a signup sheet for a construction apprenticeship program run by the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 926.
“I didn’t know anything about construction other than it paid well,” Theus said. But he was willing to give it a try, and was accepted into the program in October.
The Local 926 Joint Apprenticeship and Skill Improvement Training Program has been teaching workers the skills they need to operate heavy machinery at construction sites since 1969 and is registered with the Labor Department. Today, apprentices must complete 6,000 hours of on-the-job paid training as well as at least 196 hours of classroom training related to the trade during each year of their apprenticeship.
Apprentices begin as “oilers” before they begin learning how to operate the machinery, Theus said. “We make sure the machines are operating correctly and are maintained properly so that they can function. This helps me to not only learn what functions the machine can do, but what needs to be done to the machine to allow it to keep doing those functions.”
Building on that experience, apprentices learn firsthand from other operators at construction sites and practice their skills through virtual simulations.
“Being able to see things up close helps a lot,” said Theus. “When it’s time to go back to the training facility and earn our certifications, it makes you feel comfortable with the machines after seeing them in action on real projects.”
Upon completing the program, he will be certified to operate most heavy machines found on construction sites, such as cranes, hoists, pile drivers, dozers, backhoes, excavators and other tractors.
“This program is a valuable resource for both the apprentice and the employer,” said Mitch Byrd, the business manager for Local 926. “Here, we focus on skilled labor and the opportunity it presents. Because of that, we know workers will want to train with us and employers will want to hire our graduates.”
For Theus and his wife, the apprenticeship means a chance at a career that can provide for their family. Theus is now earning $17 an hour as an apprentice and can expect to earn more after completing his training. For their youngest son, who is 3, it means dad gets to drive cool trucks.
“Whenever we go into the city, I try to drive by a site to show him where I’ve been working and the machines I get to work with,” Theus said with pride.