Career Classroom: New heavy equipment operator program is example of ‘win-win’ situation for students, business partners

Thomas Eosso has been a paving contractor in Ocean County for more than 30 years, but the past five years have been difficult. 

It’s not that he doesn’t have jobs lined up — there’s plenty of work. It’s that he can’t find employees to replace those who are retiring.

So that’s why, at 4:45 a.m. on a cold February morning, Eosso and his workers set up a dozen pieces of heavy equipment — including a 40-foot-long milling machine — in the parking lot of Ocean County Vocational Technical Schools campus in Jackson Township.

A few hours later, dozens of students who are attending the school’s heavy equipment operator and diesel mechanic programs came out to the parking lot to meet with Eosso and his employees. They got an opportunity to see the equipment up close and ask Eosso’s employees lots of questions about working in the paving industry.

OCVTS students attending the school’s heavy equipment operator and diesel mechanic programs, meet Eosso’s employees.

“We’re losing the younger generation,” Eosso said. “When I heard about this vocational school, I told my brothers about it. We said, ‘Let’s get involved with this and do everything we can to help.’ If we can get four or five of these kids into our company in the next couple of years, we can give them training and make them winners.”

Karen L. Homiek, the superintendent of Ocean County Vocational Technical Schools, said she welcomes business partners like Eosso with open arms. 

“Their staff is aging out, and they want our students,” Homiek said. “They’re looking to us for help and we’re able to help them. It’s a win-win for our students and the employers.”

All of the state’s 21 vocational-technical schools have business partners for the areas they specialize in, from automotive to the building trades, from health care to cybersecurity, from logistics to engineering and more.

Business partners meet regularly with administrators to make sure what’s taught in the classroom is aligned with industry needs. Business partners also have access to a pool of motivated interns, apprentices and employees who are developing skills in high school, adult and college career programs.

OCVTS students, above and below right, get an up-close tour of Eosso’s heavy machinery.

Eosso’s visit to the campus also gives him an opportunity to motivate students and make them feel proud about choosing a career in the construction industry, rather than following the typical high school-to-college path.

“The construction industry today is really prospering and, if you’re a good operator or a good diesel mechanic, you could really at a young age win in this industry,” Eosso said.

Ocean County Vocational Technical School launched the heavy equipment operator program at the beginning of the current school year to meet the needs of an industry that has high demand for skilled employees, said Joe Moore, the heavy equipment operator instructor at the school. This year’s class has 31 students, and next year’s will have two classes with more than 40 students.

Eosso said jobs at his company pay between $20 and $40 an hour. If the company is doing a job with a government entity, where it must pay prevailing wages, salaries can go as high as $80 an hour.

“Most of these kids will start out at $20 an hour right out of high school, but they can move right up really fast,” Eosso said. “If they want to learn, they can move fast and be making $35 an hour at a very young age.”

That’s what drew Benjamin Brenner to the heavy equipment operator program at Ocean County Vocational Technical School. During high school, he attended the shared-time program for building construction technology at OCVTS and graduated in 2020. 

When one of his instructors told him about the new heavy equipment operator program at the vocational-technical school, Brenner knew he had to attend. He is continuing at OCVTS as an adult student in the shared-time program.

“Ever since I was 5 years old, I wanted to become a heavy equipment operator,” Brenner said. “After I graduated high school, I was trying to get into the union, but I was not accepted. When I learned about this program, I jumped right in. I’m so glad I was able to get a spot. It’s taught me so much over the past few months. It’s just an amazing experience.”

Conversation Starter

Employers can learn more and express interest in partnering with county vocational-technical schools here: