Training Tough

A pair of forward-thinking training coordinators push operators to learn new skills as they look to the future of the industry.

Noah Ridgway and Justin May pose in front of a 270C Excavator

At a 48-acre training facility in Marion, Illinois, local operators push their skills to the limit. They cut slopes, haul dirt, and lay pipeline. They traverse and transform hills, ponds, and ditches. On a busy day, they’ll deploy a fleet of Deere machines — dozers, excavators, motor graders, articulated dump trucks, and more — to tackle six or seven scenarios simultaneously. And at the heart of these operations, overseeing a flurry of activity for the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 318 are two men — Justin May and Noah Ridgway.

“When I started my apprenticeship in 2010, we had 20 acres of land, one excavator, one backhoe, and a few other pieces of equipment,” says May, the facility’s head instructor. “Everyone would race here to see who could train first. You’d run half a day, then you’d watch. We used to have to rent a GPS dozer for the month, just so everyone could get some training in.”


After graduating from the apprentice program in 2014, May worked as a part-time instructor before taking on full-time responsibilities in 2017. Thanks to his years of experience, the efforts of the previous administration, and the strong bond he’s developed with Ridgway, the facility’s training coordinator, union members now have more access to training than ever before.

“Noah and I take the difficult experiences we’ve had out in the field and apply them here. We’ll work out different scenarios — where to put a ditch, how much pipe to lay, what slopes we want to work, or how much dirt we want to move. We’ll talk to members about the things they’ve seen on jobsites and simulate those environments. And we’ll talk to different companies about specific work they want done. Our goal is to prepare everybody, so when they go to work there aren’t too many surprises. They’re confident and comfortable on the machines they’re running.”

May is a skilled operator in his own right, but the life of an instructor took some getting used to. “When you work out in the field, it’s a different sort of excitement. You run a dozer all day, working on a slope, and at the end of the day, you think, ‘Wow, that looks good. I did that today.’ As an instructor, that feeling goes away a little bit, because you’re training someone else to do that work. But when you see that person learn how to tackle a problem, when you see that smile on their face, that’s what I get excited about now. When I first started here, I missed running equipment. I missed cutting slopes. But now seeing other guys get better, it’s very fulfilling.”


Close up of the back of a dozer pushing dirt up to an area for an excavator to scoop it up


“You’ve got to be creative out here because things are changing all the time,” says May. “There’s never a permanent structure. We might have rolling hills today and flat ground three weeks from now. So we’ve got to always move forward. Whatever the scenario might be, it’s good to put two minds together because you can catch yourself getting tunnel vision. Whenever Noah or I have an idea, we just run with it.”

Ridgway has been with IUOE Local 318 since 2001. “I worked in the field for union contractors, then became a full-time instructor here. I’ve worked at this facility for five years and have run our day-to-day operations since last spring.”

In that time, Ridgway and May have transformed the physical look of the training site. “We’ve put in a lot of work since we took over,” Ridgway says. “We’ve worked on the terrain, so there are more rolling hills. We wanted land that was more typical of southern Illinois. We’re trying to make it so members can sit on slopes and hillsides — scenarios they’ll frequently encounter on a jobsite.”

And the terrain isn’t the only thing that’s changed recently. “We’ve grown from roughly 2,000 training hours a year to almost 20,000. Our members are looking for more than equipment training, so we’re focusing on the classroom to provide additional hazmat, OSHA® [Occupational Safety and Health Administration], rigging, signaling, and MSHA [Mine Safety & Health Administration] courses. That way, members can get the certifications they need.

“We have men and women train here who’ve never set foot on a piece of equipment,” continues Ridgway. “They’ve pretty much only mowed their grass. For others, it’s a family business. Their grandfathers, fathers, and brothers, they’re all members. All kinds of people come through here. I want to make sure every single person leaves this facility a competent and proficient operator.”


Close up of an operator working in an excavator cab


For IUOE Local 318 head instructor Justin May, a strong dealer partnership makes training more efficient and effective. “Kevin Trader and Erb Equipment Co. provide everything we need. We can’t have iron down very long because members come out here and want to run specific machines. They have particular tasks they need to train to do. So we don’t like equipment being down for more than a day. If a machine’s down and repairs are above my mechanic skills, there’s an Erb truck coming in no time. They have very skilled and personable mechanics who help us out. They’re all very knowledgeable, and that’s one of the big reasons we’re with Kevin and his team.”


When asked what’s the most important part of their day, Ridgway doesn’t hesitate. “Safety is paramount for us. We all want to put in a good eight and go home to our families. That’s what we preach out here: Do the work, be safe, and provide for your family.”

“I want to push apprentices to the max,” adds May. “I want to push them so that when they get a job, it’s easy. These scenarios might not be an everyday task, but when you’re done training, you’re comfortable sitting in that dozer on a steep slope. You’re comfortable sitting in that excavator when you’re digging pipeline. I really want members to say, ‘Man, work’s easy compared to what we do out here.’”


The International Union of Operating Engineers Local 318 training facility is serviced by Erb Equipment Co., Inc., Mt. Vernon, Illinois.