Expo shows off 49ers’ training center, apprenticeship program

Construction vendors showcase their newest heavy equipment at the New Iron Expo April 3-5.

HINCKLEY – Dominic Bergerson skipped school on a Thursday morning to play video games and drive heavy equipment around in the mud, but the 17-year-old wasn’t playing hooky.

He was exploring career opportunities.

Bergerson was among some 1,000 people who attended the New Iron Expo during its three-day run April 3-5 at Operating Engineers Local 49’s training center. The event featured over 100 vendors, who allowed prospective operators, journey-level workers, contractors and industry insiders to kick the tires on dozens of the newest heavy equipment models.

“I’m trying to figure out what I’m supposed to be doing with my life,” Bergerson said in between turns on a backhoe video simulator. “This is a good way to start.”

Reaching “future 49ers” like Bergerson, Business Manager Glen Johnson said, was the union’s primary objective in hosting an expo for the second time in three years.

“This expo was to promote the training that we do and this training center – and the opportunity to be able to get into the Operating Engineers and have a career,” he added.

Six-year-old Jayden Maslow and his dad, Roman, an Operating Engineer from Braham, push some dirt  together during the New Iron Expo. Jayden skipped school to attend the event.

The 49ers’ training grounds sprawl across 400 acres of land east of Hinckley. The $10 million facility opened in 2006, and an estimated 5,000 people pass through each year, from apprentices working on their credits to journey-level members keeping their certifications up to date.

The union takes pride in keeping the training center a state-of-the-art facility, so that its graduates are ready to meet the industry’s labor needs – and equipped with the skills to adapt as the industry changes. Local 49 recently invested in GPS technology, increasingly embedded into heavy equipment, and it added a pipeline training area with a grant from its international union.

The facility itself reflects the kind of “smart build” technology at the cutting edge of the construction industry. A geothermal energy field on campus powers the training center’s buildings, producing enough energy to sell back to the electric grid as a backup source – an arrangement that allows the local to keep its energy bills near zero.

“We’ll be here forever,” Johnson said of the training center. “The facility was built like a college campus, and it’s built to last.”

During the expo, Local 49 business agents led bus tours that snaked through the different training grounds, where apprentices get hands-on experience operating cranes, pile drivers, bulldozers, excavators and other machines.

Simulators inside Local 49’s training center offered an opportunity to work on technique before climbing inside the real equipment. “It’s all muscle memory,” Local 49 business agent Darrell Miller said. “With enough repetition, it comes.”

“Operating engineers aren’t getting born; we’ve got to make them,” business agent Will Thomssen told a bus full of visitors. “That’s our job as a local union, and this is about letting our members know and our contractors know how we do it.”

At the end of the bus tour was the big show: fields bustling with heavy equipment as far as the eye could see. Vendor representatives stood ready to show off their products or give a quick tutorial to anyone interested in climbing into the operator’s chair.

“The industry is manufacturing new equipment and attachments and all sorts of stuff every day,” Johnson said. “Where do you get to go to see a lot of it in one place?”

For Bergerson, the 17-year-old skipping school, that was exactly the appeal. After setting a high score on the backhoe simulator, he headed out to try the real thing.

“Right when I hopped in that door,” he said, “it was like, ‘Woah, this is a lot tougher than I thought.’”


  1. What a nice program this is!

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