Chris Collins
The Baker City Herald

On Wednesday morning, Baker High School junior Dawson Vanderwiele sat comfortably in the seat of a heavy equipment simulator developed for the Caterpillar tractor company as the high-tech apparatus was introduced at Baker Technical Institute.

Using joysticks, which have replaced steering wheels for a new generation of operators, Vanderwiele manipulated the simulated actions of a hydraulic excavator. The 16-year-old was comfortable at the controls, displaying the skills she’s developed growing up in her family’s business, Triple C Ready-Mix.

The hydraulic excavator simulator is the first of several similar pieces BTI hopes to place in the former auto mechanics shop at BHS, said Doug Dalton, BTI president.

The space, which has stood vacant for several years, is being renovated to serve as the base of a heavy equipment operator school BTI plans to open this fall, Dalton said.

Student instruction will be provided at no cost to students during the school day by BTI teacher Dave Frazey. Dawson also will provide peer support.

Comprehensive adult classes will be offered for a fee outside of school hours by Casey Vanderwiele, Dawson’s dad and an equipment operator at Triple C Ready-Mix, which is owned by his parents, Cass and Patty Vanderwiele.

The $35,000 Cat hydraulic excavator simulator was purchased with a $32,000 Leo Adler grant and district funds, Dalton said as the equipment was introduced at the new class site Wednesday. Students can gain 70 percent of the training needed on the simulator before moving on to the actual machine.

“The hydraulic excavator is the most common piece of equipment,” Dalton said. “It’s what’s in most demand.”

The hope, dependent on grant funding, is to add a series of other simulators: a bulldozer, a loader and a road grader.

Representatives of the Ford Family Foundation, toured BTI Wednesday afternoon and took turns trying out the simulator.

“A partnership of Ford and Leo Adler would make a lot of sense,” Dalton said of possible funding avenues for the program.

The mobile unit will go on the road this spring, first to the state FFA convention March 24-27 at the Deschutes Fair & Expo Center in Redmond.

The next stop will be the Oregon Department of Transportation maintenance station in Baker City for the Eastern Oregon Construction and Utilities Career Day on April 25.

There will be a Women in Trades seminar on June 19, taught by Frazey, with Dawson Vanderwiele assisting.

“I’m excited to be a part of it and help out and represent the women in this industry,” Dawson said.

Though she has her sights set on attending Oregon State University to work toward a career in fish and wildlife management, Dawson said she’ll always be available to help with the family business.

“Equipment will always be a part of what I do,” she said.

The heavy equipment program featuring the simulator also will be offered at no cost during the Eastern Oregon University Summer Institute, Dalton said. Half of the program will take place at the EOU campus in La Grande and half at BTI.

Ken Pflederer, president of CSE Software Inc. of Peoria, Illinois, where the Caterpillar Co. has its headquarters, and Joel Montgomery, who works in customer support and engineering for the software company, traveled to Baker City for the Wednesday presentation.

Pflederer says simulator training is the wave of the future. It takes no fuel and causes no wear-and-tear on equipment. And the $35,000 price tag is a fraction of the $350,000 to $400,000 cost of the actual equipment.

“It teaches good safety habits before someone gets in the machine and runs over the foreman’s truck,” Pflederer said.

The simulator also works to build “muscle memory” as trainees learn instinctively which way to move the controls to accomplish the work at hand, much like a reporter knows which computer keys to strike to tell a story, he said.

The simulator training is aimed at helping prepare students for skilled jobs that pay high wages and are in high demand.

“Machine operator is one of the biggest lacks,” Pflederer said of industry jobs that are hard to fill as longtime employees retire. “Youth of today aren’t interested in becoming operators.”

But they are interested in video gaming.

“This is serious gaming,” he said of the simulators. “Kids want to get on it. It attracts them.”

Pflederer and his staff said they promote Baker City and BTI as they travel throughout the region where training for these jobs is rarely available.

“It’s a great thing for the community and a great thing to give anybody with any drive at all a good-paying job,” he said of the heavy equipment operator school.

See more in the March 3, 2017, issue of the Baker City Herald.