The Face of the Industry: Pumpers Focus on Operator Training

Pump owners, manufacturers, and customers of pumping services all rely on one knowledgeable individual to place concrete correctly and safely through some of the most technologically advanced equipment in concrete construction. This individual must be a professional as well as an ambassador to uphold the image of his employer and the entire industry. That individual is the concrete pump operator.

If you consider the resources available to new and veteran operators – the factory training programs, ACPA safety seminars and operator’s manuals– you become aware of the demanding roles of the men and women behind the remote box at the mat pours, the deck pours, the commercial sites and the residential developments.

Three pumping firms that approach operator training from different angles, include Coastal Carolina Pumping, Inc., Charlotte, NC, Southwest Concrete Pumping, Englewood, CO and A.J. Concrete Pumping, Atlanta.

“When it comes down to it, our operators are the face of our company, says Coastal Owner Ross Sykes. “They deal with the customers, the ready-mix suppliers and all of the other key players involved at the job site. They’ve got to be ready, willing, knowledgeable and able to see the job through, each and every time,” says Sykes.

“It’s important to our operation that new hires walk in the door with some general knowledge of concrete,” says Southwest Operations Manager Glen Grabowski. “We certainly don’t go around trying to recruit experienced operators from other contractors, but tend to hire those who have operated ready mix trucks or somehow been affiliated with heavy construction and the application of concrete. From there, we mold our new employees so they understand the company philosophy and use it as a guideline to better themselves and the company.”

“A CDL license is certainly a plus,” says Bob Rosendale, part owner for Southwest. “If they have no pump experience, we make sure they get the training they need to be safe, knowledgeable and confident on the job site.”

Coastal Carolina institutes a standardized, yet customizable process with each and every one of their new hires. The process begins with the most accessible training: Schwing Service Seminars and American Concrete Pumping Association certification.

Like thousands of pumping contractors across the nation, Coastal has invested in their employees and their livelihood by enrolling new and veteran operators in Schwing Service Seminars. Classroom and hands-on training stresses the importance of daily maintenance, safety and emergency job-site repairs. Both forms of instruction are conducted at Schwing’s White Bear headquarters’ training center. Once the classroom portion is completed, students can view the assembly process while applying their book smarts to actual pump models. Schwing also sends professional, knowledgeable trainers directly to their customers’ headquarters.

“For our new hires, attendance at Schwing school is a requirement,” says Coastal’s Sykes. “All of my employees gain something from the experience. Whenever we hire on a group of new operators, Schwing instructors come right to us to conduct Level I training. I require our veteran operators to attend the seminars as well. Pumping technology and standards are constantly changing and advancing, and it’s important for each one of my employees to understand the fundamentals of a concrete pump.”

Completing Level I of the Schwing Service Seminars is one way operators can receive ACPA certification. To become certified, operators must complete a point-by-point exam to insure they incorporate proper safety measures into each aspect of their job.

Levels II and III of Schwing Service Seminars address the advanced issues and technology associated with concrete pump operation, focusing more on the mechanics training. Topics include proper procedure for changing rams, material cylinder alignment, Rock Valve maintenance, and advanced electrical and hydraulic schematic reading. The advanced courses also review the importance of safety and safe operation, and hands-on troubleshooting.

When it comes to ACPA certification, Southwest and A.J. Concrete Pumping confirm there’s no substitute. The American Concrete Pumping Association offers the only nationally recognized safety certification program for concrete pump operators. To date, the ACPA has certified close to 3,500 operators nationwide. Besides Schwing-operated seminars, the ACPA sponsors certification seminars around North America for both members and non-members.

“We work almost strictly by the ACPA guidelines when it comes to certification, refresher courses and recertification,” says Rosendale. “New operators have to digest those basic principles of safety, pump capability and concrete characteristics before they begin on-site training.”

Completion of Schwing schooling and ACPA certification is only the beginning of the training for new operators at Coastal Carolina. Sykes and company have devised their own rigorous, 24-day program, extracting curriculum from manufacturers, associations, technical colleges and the American Concrete Institute.

“From our perspective, the ability to apply the technical knowledge from manufacturer training and the ACPA is only the beginning,” says Sykes. “If they utilize those quality resources, anyone can become a knowledgeable, efficient operator. In addition to what they gain from those programs, we need people with the right attitude, a more generalized knowledge of concrete construction and an ability to handle day-to-day challenges and customer service issues. Our program helps them become an ideal Coastal employee.”

Upon hire, each new operator is issued a copy of what Sykes refers to as the Book of Objectives. The textbook outlines specific tasks and lessons that must be accomplished each day throughout the first 23 days of the operator’s employment. Members of Coastal Carolina’s administration have “master” copies, while each of the company’s “teaching” operators are also assigned manuals to follow along with new employee progress.

For the first three days of orientation, new Coastal operators are required to study the basics of job site safety, general operation procedures, and professionalism. At the end of each day, operators are issued an exam. In order to proceed with the program, each question must be answered correctly.

Once they clear their first few days of classroom training, Coastal rookies are finally permitted onto their first pump job under the supervision of a veteran operator. “On that day, they’ve got to brush up on the basics,” says Sykes. “Grease fittings, boom tie downs, outrigger operation and general maintenance are all covered.”

After this first vigorous assignment, new operators are exposed, with supervision, to several different jobs, pumps, customers and conditions over the next 23 days.

“I want them to get a flavor for everything we do around here,” says Sykes. “We make sure they’re training on system pours, boom pours, slab pours, wall pours, deck pours above the third floor…everything. We also try to make sure we mix up the mentoring operators, so they’re exposed to different personalities. Based on their interaction with our veterans and their ability to relate to the customer, we can gage their attitude.”

A.J. Concrete Pumping and Southwest institute a similar apprentice program at their firms.

“It certainly works on a case-by-case basis,” says Southwest’s Grabowski. “They work under the supervision of one of our veteran operators, and begin on smaller, more routine pours and work up to more complicated, commercial projects. Depending on the employee, orientation could take anywhere from two to six weeks. But our veteran operators have become training operators, and we have a vested interest to make sure these rookies know exactly what they’re doing once they head out on their own. ”

The same applies for Southwest’s sister company, A.J. Concrete Pumping. “We try to keep it interesting, but make sure each and every job applies to their training. Based on their performance, we can match the operator with the right pump for the duration of their career,” says Rosendale.

In addition to rated performances and completed exams, attitude can make or break an operator at Coastal Carolina Pumping. “Given the right training, anyone can do the job,” says Sykes. “Not just anyone can have a good attitude out there. Customers don’t want to see someone on the job with a scowl on their face and we certainly don’t want to give that kind of impression. Through our training process and close interaction with our new hires, we make sure that they have a passion for what they’re doing.”

At Coastal, when a veteran operator is assigned a rookie during a job, it is their responsibility at the end of the day to review and sign off on a “checklist” of items covered that day. New operators are tested to make sure that instruction and feedback was incorporated into their work on the job.

Day 23 marks a turning point in the training process. If the new hire has accomplished the necessary duties and passed the exams, Coastal assigns them the pump they will continue to use throughout their position with the company. The operator is also assigned one designated veteran employee going forward. Throughout the last few days of training, the experienced operator is responsible for reporting the progress of their apprentice to Coastal administration.

“Beyond those first couple days with their pump, it’s basically a judgment call on behalf of the training operator,” says Sykes.” They give us progress reports and let us know when they think the rookie’s ready to head out on their own. Once we get the thumbs up, they’re given a final exam, and that’s that.”

Southwest and A.J. mandate the same kind of job site training and testing. “As their knowledge, their experience and their confidence grows, we figure out which pump they’ll do their best work on,” says Southwest’s Grabowski. “During their last few days of training, they’re matched with the pump they’ll be operating throughout the majority of their career with us.”

According to both Grabowski and Rosendale, the one operator rule eliminates several concerns. “An operator is with his pump between ten and twelve hours everyday,” says Grabowski. “After a while, the operator begins to understand that particular pump’s nuances, quirks, etcetera. Because of their familiarity with the pump, they eliminate a lot of unnecessary troubleshooting, mechanical worry and generally make life a lot easier.”

Sykes says Coastal requires new operators to be educated on issues beyond equipment and attitude. Because Coastal Carolina Pumping is also affiliated with Dixie General Contractors, Inc., S & W Ready Mix Concrete, and America Materials, all based in North Carolina, training supervisors make sure that their operators not only understand the workings of the pump, but the behavior, the technology and the wide applications of concrete.

“Our training program encompasses all aspects of concrete construction – not just the pumping aspects,” says Sykes. “For instance, on Day 12 of the training, in addition to their job site training, they go through what is known as ‘Concrete 101.’ They learn about slump, the technology behind air-entrained concrete, aggregate size in relation to pipe size, and other general information we’ve incorporated into our program from the American Concrete Institute. By the end of their training, they have a general understanding of concrete mixes.”

“This is a crucial part of the composition of a good operator,” says Sykes. “That general knowledge creates a well-rounded, solid employee, and it helps us do a better job and provide a better quality product for our customers.”

When a problem does occur, Coastal operators have been instructed to handle problems analytically, carefully, and diplomatically. After careful consideration of the problem and possible solutions, operators are equipped with a list of consultants at Coastal they can call with questions and concerns.

“Troubleshooting is when all of the job site training, the attitude evaluations and the general education on concrete pays off for our operation and our customers,” says Sykes.

This fully integrated employee training program is only one way Coastal Carolina Pumping makes sure they stay educated on continuously advancing technology to meet the needs of an ever-expanding market. The company conducts review and analysis of everything from their employees to their equipment on an annual basis. Sykes says the evaluation allows them to foresee future challenges and address them up front.

“There’s always something more we could incorporate. This industry is relatively new in comparison to other construction markets. There are always things we’ve overlooked, things we could improve on, things we could do now to insure we continue to be successful. The evaluations also give us the opportunity to reflect on what we’ve done right and how far our employees, and the company, have come.”

Southwest and A.J. keep on their toes with regularly scheduled safety meetings and regular review of ACPA educational materials. Southwest also institutes a safety tip program on payday.

“We include safety tips in every paycheck. After they review them, each operator has to sign off on what they’ve read,” says Grabowski.

“The ACPA has a stellar program for operators,” says Rosendale. We provide our operators with every single piece of literature and make sure the video series is viewed and reviewed by everyone here. We make sure all updates and changes to what they’ve already reviewed are reported to them through giving assignments and conducting meetings. It keeps our operators informed, knowledgeable and safe.”