• 63°

A rodeo of backhoes

Not every student who participated in the Pruden Center’s ninth annual Heavy Construction Rodeo has a driver’s license, but the one thing they all had in common is that they could all drive a backhoe.

Each year, the rodeo gives students in the utility and heavy construction program a chance to demonstrate their operating skills to potential employers and parents.

“Students have the opportunity to apply what they learn and prepare for work on a construction site,” said Director of the Pruden Center, Corey McCray. “It’s an opportunity for the kids to show their parents and stakeholders their skill sets.”

The rodeo is supported by several local construction businesses and municipalities, some of which send representatives to scout potential talent.

At the rodeo, students participate in relay races with backhoes and perform difficult tasks, such as using a backhoe to drop a small object into a vertical pipe — a feat that proved to be difficult by seasoned workers who gave it a try just for fun.

The utility and heavy construction program began nine years ago, when industry leaders approached McCray with their need for more apt and dependable workers. To help meet the need, the center began a one-year program to equip students with the knowledge and the hands-on skills needed to secure a job in the construction industry.

Now that the construction industry has changed from needing workers to not having enough work for all the workers in the field, the Pruden Center is focusing on equipping students with the skills they need to get a head start.

“These young people stand for reasonable labor and dependable work,” said utility and heavy construction instructor Rick Littrell. “There’s a lot of workers in the industry who are out of a job, but that have been doing it for years and expect to get paid what they were being paid. You’re not going to find a lot of adults who are willing to work hard for $11 an hour.”

Littrell focuses on teaching the students about site grading and development, excavation, concrete structures, pipe laying and road building. Through partnerships with Hampton Roads Utility Heavy Contractors Association and the Hampton Roads Public Works Academy, students gain experience in operating backhoes, excavators, bulldozers and loaders.

Littrell said many of his students already have summer internships with companies and Hampton Roads cities, and a few even have full-time jobs lined up once they are out of college.

“Since I’ve been here, I’ve taken a photo of a student in the rodeo, uploaded it to Facebook and told all my associates we need to find this young man a job,” said Jim Stepahin, executive director of Hampton Roads Utility Heavy Contractors Association.

Once the students leave the school, they still have a lot to face in the job market, but they’ll still be in a better position than many of their peers.

“Sitting in that seat is a badge of honor, something you don’t usually get going right into the field,” Stepahin said. “Sometimes, they’ll work with a shovel for awhile. Other times they’ll be operating equipment right away. Either way, they have the basic understanding of the equipment that will give them the advantage over anyone who just walks through the front door looking for a job.”