College Brings CATs Into the Curriculum

Mitchell Dunford, a Patrick Henry Community College General Engineering Technology student, tests out a new simulator the college recently purchased. Contributed photo.

By Amie Knowles

November 28, 2020

A Virginia community college offers a program with a guaranteed job interview, plus a salary opportunity more than double the area’s average.

MARTINSVILLE – Patrick Henry Community College in Martinsville received a large package ahead of the holidays. It wasn’t part of a Black Friday deal, but brings with it potential savings – in the form of financial aid – for students interested in a heavy machinery career. And once students complete the program, local companies offer opportunities for immediate employment.

The package contained two new Heavy Equipment Caterpillar simulators and a Caterpillar Trailer. Purchased with assistance from the Higher Education Equipment Trust Fund, the college geared up for an upcoming class offering. Starting on January 19, 2021, PHCC will offer a brand new Heavy Equipment Operator program.

Before-the-job training

Valued at $140,000, the state-of-the-art Caterpillar simulators feature rotating motion platforms and offer a 3-D virtual reality experience that replicates real-life operating scenarios.

Rhonda Hodges, PHCC’s vice president of workforce, economic and community development, spoke positively about the opportunities the simulation offered to students, prior to driving big machinery on real construction sites.

“First and foremost, safety. Students can become familiar with how the equipment feels and operates before getting into the field, which helps with their own safety as well as coworkers’,” Hodges said. “Also, heavy construction equipment represents a significant investment of resources for employers, so it is better if students get initial experiences on simulators.”

The simulator also helps teachers troubleshoot issues or struggles their students might encounter before they happen on the job.

“Our instructor, Mike Amos, is a subject matter expert with many years of experience in the field,” Hodges said. “As he leads students through simulation exercises, he will be able to assess their skills, as well as areas of challenge, so he can target on which specific areas students need to spend extra time and effort.”

The program

Through a hybrid of online class work and in-person training on the simulator, students will learn heavy equipment safety, basic operational techniques, the basics of earth-moving and how to interpret civil drawings.

The entire program takes four months, from start to finish. Once students complete the coursework, they have the skills needed to operate excavators, wheel loader equipment and additional large machinery.

In the Martinsville area where the college resides, employers advertise anywhere from $18 to $28 per hour starting salaries for full-time heavy equipment operators.

According to, the average hourly wage in Martinsville slides in at $13.90. So in some cases, those with the Heavy Equipment Operator credentials could make more than double the average for their area.

Local employers, such as Prillaman & Pace and Henry County Public Service Authority, guaranteed job interviews to anyone who successfully completed the new program at PHCC.

“In addition to local employers who have already guaranteed an interview with completers, the Virginia Heavy Construction Contractors Association will partner with PHCC to provide interview opportunities with employers,” Hodges said.

Paying for college

The four-month program averages out at $1,125 per month, in the form of a one-time lump sum of $4,500. However, there are several funding opportunities for students interested in the Heavy Equipment Operator program.

The program meets eligibility requirements for the FastForward Virginia initiative, which covers two-thirds of the tuition. FastForward is a short-term workforce training program that helps equip Virginians with industry credentials and certifications for in-demand jobs across the Commonwealth.

The Heavy Equipment Operator program also meets eligibility requirements for VA Ready, which offers eligible students a $1,000 incentive bonus upon program completion.

The program also meets the requirements for the new Re-Employing Virginia Tuition Voucher initiative, which covers up to $3,000 for specific full-time classes and up to $1,500 for specific part-time classes. The Re-Employing Virginia initiative helps workers who faced unemployment challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The voucher only applies for students registering for the spring 2021 semester by Dec. 14 of this year.

Sweetening the deal, PHCC noted that the new Heavy Equipment Operator program qualified for the college’s Treats for the Trades drawing in December. The college will enter students who enroll in one of three programs – including Heavy Equipment Operator, Plumbing or Industry 4.0 – before December 11 into a drawing for an Amazon gift card and PHCC prizes.

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. She can be reached at [email protected]

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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