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Taking the training wheels off … big time at O’Brien Training

Tamara Ketlo, project manager and communications for O’Brien Training.

With mines, forestry sites, and pipelines dotting the landscape in northern B.C., there is always a need for heavy equipment operators.

Whether it’s loading logs, hauling rocks, or building roads, heavy equipment operators are there. But how do they get there?

One well-used path is through O’Brien Training, which has been certifying heavy equipment operators in the North for 16 years.

“We specialize in training students in the North, and from all over the place,” Tamara Ketlo, project manager and communications for O’Brien Training. “They come from Alberta, they come from Vancouver Island.”

Much of the training is done at their construction location on Mud River Road. Students can get hands-on training on equipment such as graders, dozers, rock trucks, and excavators.

O’Brien also has a forestry site where students can train on dangle-head processors, feller bunchers, skidders, and loaders.

And hands-on means hands-on. Students spend most of their training time behind the wheel of these massive machines.

“(Students) are getting on different machines every day if they want to, depending on what’s available,” Ketlo said.

The idea is for the students to learn which piece of equipment they like working on and perhaps have an aptitude for.

“I try to help them embrace their talents when it comes to choosing a machine,” she said.

Like everything else, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted how they work, however, the nature of the work is normally solitary i.e. if you’re working a piece of equipment you’re by yourself. For the training, everyone is in radio contact with the instructor who is on the ground keeping an eye on what the student is doing. And, of course, everything is sanitized after being used.

And if you think it might be a problem to put students into pieces of heavy equipment all by themselves where they could do some damage if they hit the wrong lever, they all go through a simulator prior getting into the real thing.

“We do have a simulator training centre … a stationary one in Prince George and a mobile one which we use for remote training,” she said. “That is essential, especially for the greenhorns, for students to get on there and practice, spending a half a day or day before they jump on a machine. It’s like a big video game. It corrects them if they’re doing anything wrong and it teaches them all the buttons and handles.”

With that familiarity, students already have a handle on what all those buttons and levers are for.  

“It’s not the real thing, but it certainly saves the real thing when you jump into it,” she said, with a laugh.

And O’Brien Training has been expanding its base of operations.

“We have been growing and extending into some remote projects,” Ketlo said, which she is perfectly suited to manage.

Being a member of the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation, Ketlo has plenty of ties with the Indigenous communities in the North, which helps her develop the remote training programs. However, she brings more than that to the table. Ketlo is a Red Seal welder and worked for eight years in that trade.

“With that experience and being a woman, it attracts people into understand that they’re capable to stepping out of their comfort zone and step into this new world of trades or industry,” she said. “When they see someone like me promoting this, it really does help have a common denominator.”

One remote project is nine-week course at Hagwilget in the Hazletons that just wrapped up last week.

“The beautiful thing with the remote training is we get to develop their land so we’re not just going in a circle and doing the relay process of our at-home school,” she said. “We’re doing something, we’re accomplishing something. It’s very rewarding in the fact that land gets developed, they get to train on their land, and they don’t have to leave home, and they go away with all their certifications.”

In these pandemic times, that is a real plus as students would normally have to come to Prince George, or even larger centres, to get this type of training.

Ketlo also helps students with some career coaching, giving students the tools to be able to a job when they finish the course.

“I do my best to make everyone very excited about it and realize what they have in their hands to tangibly move forward into a new career,” she said.

O’Brien Training trains about 100 students per year. The length of courses vary, depending what a student is training on and their level of experience. It could run a couple of weeks, a month, or the nine weeks, which is the longest.

“It doesn’t take a long time to become certified, have your paperwork and be ready step into the work field and make good money,” she said.

Cultural awareness is also a big part of the company’s business plan.

“I don’t think being culturally aware is wrong, it’s something more people should understand because it can help people be more comfortable,” she said. “(It helps) to know who you’re dealing with going in and being culturally aware so you’re not hurting people. That’s something we recognize as a school.”

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