Shatara Duncan isn’t your typical Georgetown County Heavy Equipment Operator. It’s not just that she’s female. Or that she’s young and petite, looking downright tiny next to the giant yellow off-road articulated dump truck she drives around.
Duncan is unique because she’s the first of her kind in Georgetown County; the first to enroll in a new county initiative aimed at recruiting and training Heavy Equipment Operators, better known as HEOs. It’s an essential job within the county’s organizational structure, but one that has become increasingly difficult to fill as demand for this skillset grows nationwide.
“These days we are really struggling to find qualified people,” said Ray Funnye, director of Georgetown County Public Services.
The department currently has 27 HEO positions. Of those, five are vacant and five are filled by individuals who are beyond retirement age – some in their 70s – and continue to work because they enjoy it. Two more will reach retirement age within the next 18 months.
“We could be down to 50 percent staffing like that,” Funnye said with a snap of his fingers. “They could decide to walk out any day.”
That’s what led him, with assistance from Human Resources Director Walt Ackerman and the full support of County Council, to create an HEO Apprentice program. It’s similar to a recruit program the county’s Emergency Services Division created last year for firefighters. It trains individuals in-house and has been successful, having helped the department tremendously in remedying long-term staffing shortages at Georgetown County Fire-EMS and Midway Fire-Rescue.
Funnye hopes for similar results in his department.
“We’re looking for people who are good employees,” he said. “If they have that – if they’re reliable, they show up to work and they work hard – we can take care of the rest. We’ll train them and get them on the path to a good career.”
He handpicked Duncan as his first apprentice for those reasons. A Sampit resident, she was working in the scale house and Recycling Convenience Center at the landfill, and Funnye saw potential in her for more. Duncan expressed an interest in learning, and the idea for the apprenticeship program was born. They started the paperwork immediately and she began her training about two months ago.
So far, she’s loving it. She’s learning fast and at just 30 years old, could easily advance up the ranks and have a decades-long career, earning a good salary with Georgetown County as a top-tier HEO.
“I’m really like a tom boy, so for me this is fun. I like to learn new things and especially the heavy equipment,” Duncan said. Being small of stature, she said she also likes riding high in the trucks. “It’s just fun to me – carrying the dirt, dumping the plastic, being in the compactor, pushing the trash. Being on the hill (at the top of the landfill), you see a lot of birds. You see a lot of things up there.”
She said the variety of tasks makes every day interesting.
As part of the program, the county will also make changes to how HEOs are classified and advance up the ranks. Currently, the highest paygrade an HEO can achieve is the position of HEO 3, which requires eight years of experience, plus a Class A Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) among other things. Going forward, there will be five levels of HEO after Apprentice. Starting salary for an apprentice is $30,464 with no training or higher education. Applicants for the program must be at least 18 years old.
After one year as an apprentice, employees can qualify to move up to Level 1 HEO and the next paygrade. They can continue to advance a level each year, as long as they can prove they have mastered the tasks required for that level. For example, for Level 1 an apprentice would have to demonstrate proficiency with at least three pieces of heavy equipment, such as a running loader, excavator, backhoe, motor grader, dump truck, etc. At Level 2, additional pieces of equipment would have to be mastered, and at Level 3, a Class A CDL would also be required. Each level would also bring additional compensation.
“It should simplify the process a lot from what we have and allow people to advance more quickly, as long as the employee can demonstrate they have the mastery to move up,” Ackerman said. “It’s based on time put in and skills. Under our current system, we have people now who have the skills, but can’t move up because our time requirement is so extensive.”
Funnye said he plans to continue recruiting from within when he sees an employee with the work ethic and disposition to make them a good candidate. But individuals, including new high school graduates, are also welcome to apply directly to the program. There are currently five open spots, with more to be added.
If the program is as successful as the Firefighter Recruit School, plans are to expand it into other areas of Public Services, such as construction. The county’s Facilities Services Division, which handles everything from building repairs and some new construction to electrical work and HVAC maintenance and repair, is experiencing similar issues with staffing.
“Seventy percent of people in trade fields – carpenters, bricklayers, electricians – are over 55 years old,” Ackerman said. “That’s nationwide. In 10 years, 70 percent of people in those fields are going to retire and there’s nobody to replace them. We have to start doing something.”
Funnye said he is excited and optimistic about the possibilities apprenticeship programs create for Georgetown County.
“We’re ready to start training the next generation and growing a new crop of trained and skilled professionals,” he said. “As leaders, we have to work smarter and plan for the worst. That’s what we’re doing here. We’re planning and preaparing for the future of Georgetown County.”
For more information about the HEO Apprenticeship Program, send an email to email@example.com or call (843) 545-3074.