Strategies for Attracting & Retaining Skilled Operators

Strategies for attracting & retaining skilled operators

Research shows that a skilled operator can use 10-12% less fuel every day than an unskilled one. In addition to cutting fuel costs, the right operator can also enhance safety, improve productivity and extend component life. That’s probably why when Caterpillar asked a group of heavy construction professionals to identify their biggest source of competitive advantage, more than 30% said skilled operators.



Because skilled operators can make or break your business, attracting and retaining them is a huge priority. It can also be a huge headache. In a 2013 survey of U.S. construction firms conducted by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), nearly three-quarters of respondents said they struggle to find skilled employees. Equipment operators were cited as one of the hardest positions to fill. Most participants predicted the skilled labor shortage would continue, with nearly 9 out of 10 saying it will “remain difficult” or “get harder” to find workers, and 74% agreeing “there aren’t enough skilled workers to meet future demand.”

  • 74% Have trouble finding skilled workers
  • 86% Expect labor situation to remain hard or get worse
  • 74% Say there aren’t enough skilled workers to meet future demand
  • 31% Cite equipment operator as hardest position to fill
  • 49% Are losing skilled workers to higher paying jobs
  • 56% Are increasing wages and benefits to retain workers
  • 65% Rate current high school/tech programs below average or worse

686 respondents – building, heavy, highway, and utility construction sectors



Even employers who pay well and value their people can find it difficult to attract and retain skilled operators. Here are a few strategies to consider:


The American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) says training is one of the most effective ways to increase employee loyalty, improve retention and attract top people. It’s also a means to improve productivity and control costs, particularly fuel costs, which can be reduced significantly when a skilled operator is in the cab.
The ASTD recommends 40 hours of training per year per employee. And while that may sound daunting, it’s important to remember that training includes simple low-cost things like lunchtime coaching sessions and on-the-job mentoring as well as more expensive options such as classroom instruction, hands-on activities, online courses, offsite seminars and simulator-based training. Regardless of how you choose to meet your training objectives, understand that in today’s labor market providing developmental opportunities is no longer a “nice-to-have”option. Put it on your “must-do” list.


If you had to choose between working all day in a brand new fuel-efficient machine or gutting out a shift in something built during the Reagan era, what would you do? Most would opt for the more pleasant work environment. It’s just more appealing to operate a product that’s clean, quiet and comfortable. And when it comes to productivity, newer cab features – like good visibility, a quality seat, ergonomic control, great ventilation and easy-to-read displays – can make a big difference in safety and efficiency. So if you’re having a hard time attracting and keeping equipment operators, give some thought to the “office” you’re asking them to work in. Maybe it’s time to upgrade of the units in your fleet.


Millennials (those reaching adulthood around the year 2000) will make up the majority of the construction workforce by 2018, according to the U.S. Census. The greatest strength of this generation, say many industry leaders, is their comfort with technology. most have never experienced or can’t remember a world without computers. And while few seem interested in earning a living as an equipment operator, it may be possible to change their minds by introducing them to 21st century machine technology – automated control and guidance systems, GPS-based management tools and more.
Innovation can bring Milennials through the door, and once they’re on your team, they can help your whole organization get more tech-savvy. Show them your production data. Share the facts about fuel consumption and idle time. Ask for idea to cut costs and improve productivity. Giving Millennials the change to lead a technology transformation will make them feel valued, which can in turn improve retention. A senior manager from a third-generation construction company in Canada put it this way: New operators “have a gift” when it comes to learning technology. “They pick it up quickly, and when it comes to technology, our young guys help foster the older guys. It’s really beneficial because without technology, our production rates wouldn’t be where they are now”


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