Every year, hundreds of students spend time at the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825 training facility in Dayton learning how to operate heavy machinery before going to work on real world infrastructure projects. Even the most experienced of the local’s more than 8,000 members will come to the facility to train on machinery they’re less familiar with, enhancing their opportunities for work in all sectors that use them, from paving the highways to driving piles for bridge construction.
Now, men and women are training for what will be IUOE Local 825’s biggest undertaking in recent memory: The Gateway Project, a mammoth $30 billion bridge-and-tunnel infrastructure project to improve connections between New York and New Jersey, and therefore streamline travel along the entire Northeast corridor. In October, the New Jersey Transit board of directors voted unanimously to award a $1.6 billion contract to build a new Portal North Bridge over the Hackensack River to Skanska Traylor PNB JV, a joint venture between Skanska USA Civil in Parsippany and Alexandria, Va.-based Traylor Bros. Inc.
In January, the final hurdle necessary to qualify for federal funding to build a $12.3 billion rail tunnel was cleared when the Federal Transit Administration raised its rating of the project. While the build out won’t finish until the latter half of this decade, “at least the clock can start to tick,” the union said on its Facebook page.
In the meantime, members of Local 825 are a busy bunch. Infrastructure statewide is aging, and they address that—repaving roadways, fixing dams, and trenching for utilities companies. Crews are replacing gas pipes for PSE&G and lead water pipes where they still exist. The dam at Round Valley Reservoir in Hun-terdon County, which at 55 billion gallons is the largest water supply reservoir by volume in the state, is being redone by a team of 30 to 40 operating engineers, IUOE Local 825 Business Manager Greg Lalevee said. After a couple years of work, they have about a season left.
“There’s a great amount of optimism that with the recent infrastructure bill that passed. There’s $1 billion that’s earmarked for New Jersey for water work, and most of that runs through the state’s infrastructure bank, which uses those funds typically to bond for bigger projects,” Lalevee said about future work.
Offshore, Lalevee said the 200-acre wind port project in South Jersey, which upon completion is expected to support up to $500 million in new economic activity within the state and region each year, is just beginning; and the aforementioned Portal North Bridge project is due to start in a matter of weeks.
“I can’t believe it’s actually that close now,” Lalevee said.
What some do for entertainment—construction-themed amusement park Diggerland USA opened in West Berlin in 2018, and before COVID brought in several hundred thousand guests each year to play around in its heavy equipment; and what little kid doesn’t grow up playing with Tonka trucks? — operating engineers do for a paycheck. For union operating engineers, it’s a healthy paycheck.
“Where I went to college was a pre-med factory when I was there, so I have a lot of friends that are doctors today. But if you really compared the trajectory of our lives, I started working in the union the summer of ’84,” said Lalevee, who was an operating engineer in the field long before taking the business manager position. “They all went off to med school and built up a tremendous amount of debt. We got to house-buying age, getting married age and all that other stuff. I bought the modest home of an operating engineer. They bought a home of a doctor to keep up with the other doctors. Same thing with vehicles, I had Fords and Chevys; they had BMWs and Lexuses.
“Now we’re at different stages of putting kids through college and getting kids married, but I’m 57 years old, and if I retire tomorrow, I have a pension check that I would get every month for a couple thousand dollars, I have an annuity fund that the union has set up through its collective bargaining agreements that, like a 401(k), I have a healthy pot of money in after 35 years,” Lalevee said. “They’re just starting to figure out how to retire and how to save for it. They’re all sitting there going, ‘well, how do I retire?’ I’m like, ‘I can retire tomorrow.’”
If it can be done in the field by a guy in a machine, it can be trained for at the center in Dayton. The facility and surrounding 61-acre plot is like a wonderland for mastering heavy machinery of all types and sizes. First, green students and journeyman operators alike can learn and practice indoors on simulators that mimic the real world. To learn crane operation, use a crane simulator; regardless of the real-life weather outside, the device can factor in wind, rain, snow, and shadows from the sun in a virtual reality. The same goes for excavator operation.
And with the cost of diesel these days—more than $5 a gallon in several towns across the state, as of March 10—the simulators offer a learning opportunity without fuel expenditures.
A few doors down, students learn to weld, also on a simulator. Simulation training has been around for several years but has leveled up in the last five, according to Lalevee. While IUOE Local 825’s four welding simulators cost around $100,000 altogether, Lalevee and IUOE Local 825 welding trainer Victor Grigoriew said it was a worthwhile investment.
When learning on real welding equipment “it’ll take you about two weeks to a month just to strike an arc. Whereas with [the simulator], you get direct feedback on what you’re doing,” Grigoriew said. “It’s green technology because we’re not wasting any steel. You’re not dealing with burning yourself right away or anything like that. And this unit’s totally portable; we can take it to job fairs, colleges, tech schools, so on and so forth.”
Grigoriew said that the welding simulator improves the pace of learning overall, and that there’s a significant reduction in cost savings for material and man hours to boot.
Beyond the walls of the facility, several cranes, backhoes, bulldozers, excavators, front-end loaders, and other equipment lay in waiting for men and women to gain experience using.
While the simulators give them muscle memory, practicing on a real machine gives workers the confidence to know they’ll operate appropriately on the job site. Stakes are higher than on a simulator, sure, but still much lower than on a job site, where quarters may be tighter and there’s an added variable of other workers.
Lalevee’s team has bigger plans for the facility moving forward. There’s a 4-acre, 80-foot-deep lake where they’re developing wind survival training for wind port workers to protect themselves if they fall into the water; and recently, the facility became a licensed technical college, meaning it can start to offer associate degrees.
“We’re going to hybrid our education between the traditional apprenticeship and some more academic work. We see the operating engineer of the future is going to have to be a more broadly educated individual, so we’re leaning into that,” Lalevee said.
Editor’s note: IUOE Local 825 Business Manager Greg Lalevee’s name has been corrected from the print version of this story.