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Project Heavy Duty prepares students for construction careers

Peter Kenter
Project Heavy Duty prepares students for construction careers

Who says high school students can’t learn anything by going back to elementary school? Last year, co-op program Project Heavy Duty saw 16 local high school students performing all of the preliminary groundwork for construction of the $26.6-million Margaret "Ma" Murray Community School in Fort St. John, B.C.

Project Heavy Duty has been a fixture at School District 60: Peace River North for about 15 years. Under the program, 16 students in Grades 11 and 12 are given real-world construction experience each year, to encourage them to consider a career in construction. To date, more than 300 students have participated in the program.

Project co-ordinator Richard Koop has been with Project Heavy Duty since its inception. He says his background as a teacher, principal and journeyman carpenter attracted him to the program. He works closely with the program’s industry consultant Don Goodbun.

"Not every senior high school student is going to go on to college or university," Koop says. "This program give students in Grades 11 and 12 the hands-on opportunity to experience construction work first hand. A lot of the economy in the area involves industries such as construction, oil and gas, logging and agriculture and all of them involve the use of heavy equipment."

Students are given the opportunity to operate crawlers, dozers, excavators, graders, rock trucks, packers and logging equipment. The program works closely with WorkSafeBC where instructors start students off on the right foot with mandatory safety courses.

Construction industry representatives also make sure students receive expert instruction. Students operate the equipment with the assistance of current heavy equipment operators who ride alongside. Site supervisors oversee all work.

The program isn’t a make-work endeavour — the co-ordinators search for candidate projects where the work will be considered valuable.

"We don’t just want the students going to a field and pushing around dirt," says Koop. "We look for a good project that will provide real benefit to the client. On this project, the students performed all of the groundwork prior to construction. There were some high spots and low spots and drainage challenges. At one point a new sub-division had been dug up and some of the dirt had been deposited in that location. We moved almost 100,000 cubic metres of dirt from that site to get it to the proper elevation. At that point, the contractors could begin to perform the foundation work."

Land was also levelled for the school parking lot and sports field.

A few of the program participants learned to operate logging equipment at a site being cleared nearby. The participants typically gain 40 to 50 hours of construction experience over the week-long exercise.

Most of the student work was completed near the end of May 2016.

The 4,000-square-metre school will serve 365 students from kindergarten to Grade 5 and will also provide space for community events and programs.

The project was designed by KMBR Architects Planners Inc. The school is being built by construction manager Unitech Construction Management Ltd.

The $26.6-million school construction budget is being shared among various stakeholders. The province is contributing $22.1 million, the City of Fort St. John is providing $2.5 million and the Peace River North School District is supplying $264,000. BC Hydro is contributing $1.8 million for an onsite daycare facility.

The school is scheduled for completion in spring 2018.

Koop notes that although the program doesn’t follow Project Heavy Duty grads indefinitely, as many as 30 per cent of student participants find work in the construction industry after graduating high school.

"Some of them wind up becoming construction workers, equipment operators and even mechanics," he says.

"What’s really great to see is that a good number of students are presented with job offers right on the work site."

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