Derek McAfee is 28, born in Salmon Arm, B.C., and a long-term resident of Zeballos, B.C., where he and his partner have started a small business in the sports-fishing industry, but McAfee has a strong work ethic and likes the atmosphere of a jobsite.

"I was a road builder on Roderick Island, which is an island beside Klemtu near Bella Bella. I was a blaster's assistant, a swamper, and a rock truck driver. I was working from camp,  two weeks on, one week off. I was injured road-building, blew my shoulder out. I went to Rehab In Motion eight weeks in Campbell River, and eight weeks in Courtenay, eight hours a day."

McAfee looked online and found out there was a chance he could enter a Heavy Equipment Operator training program at Vancouver Island University (VIU). A year after recovery, "I entered VIU. I had been looking at the program for a long time. I wanted the Excavator program."


An excavator is track machine with two joysticks, boom, stick, and bucket (and thumb), identical to the motion of a human arm and thumb, says McAfee.  The operational environment of excavators, "is one of slopes, grades, and trenches. I received 200 hours through VIU on the excavator. They have 15 excavators, 120 in size and 200 in size." 

[If those numbers sound undefinitive, the fact is, "Each OEM has a different nomenclature and way of categorizing equipment," states CASE Equipment. For more information about excavator sizes and types, visit https://www.casece.com/northamerica/en-us/resources/articles/excavator-size-classes-defined]  

The excavator program lasts 21 weeks including 4 weeks of work experience. The first half of the VIU HEO Training course on excavators this summer 2021 was eight weeks of 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., daily, Monday to Thursday, with some tests done on Fridays. This theory or classroom part of the program was mostly conducted online due to Covid-19 restrictions, but classes will resume in-person this fall in Nanaiimo." The 12 students went out to a training site south of Nanaimo. "Twelve guys stayed through the course."


Course coordinator Lauren Wapple says the program usually has 18 students.


During the classroom portion of the program, students received training on forestry and heavy equipment machine simulators situated on the VIU campus. 


"Those were very realistic," says McAfee, "a moving platform, big TV screen, controls and scenarios, whether it was cutting trees, processing logs, or loading trucks. I had been in forestry, especially road building, blasting, and other jobs, but I always loved heavy equipment the most. It's challenging and everyday is different. I have 650 hours on the rock truck, 550 hours on the excavator, and I was a mechanic's helper for a logging company."

McAfee says the excavator program curriculum took him through the paces of culvert installation and deactivation, basement excavation, trench excavation, highway ditch excavation, sloping, grading, truck loading, and (this author's favorite) rip rap, which is the placement of large stones for prevention of soil erosion, or construction of structures like breakwaters for marinas.

Operators must be mechanical troubleshooters, and learn to travel the track vehicles around job sites, on and off transport trucks, and around obstacles. In the training comes the knowing about equipment failures.


"You need hand and foot coordination just to operate the machine, tracks at your feet, and boom and stick in your hands swinging left and right, turning cab and equipment,"  says McAfee.

"I loved it. You're always making sure of your environment and what's around you, you're always swinging the cab to see behind you for reverse movement." Safety principles are at the forefront of each action with these machines, he says. "My preference is excavator and front-end loader, and the training was focused on excavators, but we were introduced to all the machines on the campus."

The operational training site of VIU campus, located south of Nanaimo, has in addition to the array of excavators, two 25-tonne articulating rock trucks, two graders, one bulldozer, two front-end rubber-tire loaders, and two backhoes. McAfee says front-end loaders are fun to drive and the loading capacity is amazing, the bucket on a front-end loader being five times the size of an excavator, "I think it's 5 cubic yards for a front-end loader."

The VIU HEO Training on excavators began at the start of June, "We were given a book containing standards and guidelines. You were graded below, middle, and above standard, with 70 percent being a pass. Below 70 percent is a fail. You get marked on competencies through the entire process of operating the excavators in different scenarios. We were graded on each project before we moved to the next. I did great. I was in the low 90s and high 80s the whole time. It went really well."

McAfee says final certification of the course includes work experience, "which is used to get us into the real world of job sites."  During work experience, HEO program instructors do site visits to make sure students are getting machine time. 

"I've been applying at jobs sites and working on finding a job, preferably in Nanaimo,  and they are showing us aspects of job hunting in the real world."

McAfee says he was funded by a sponsor, "I would recommend the program any day of the week to somebody interested in heavy equipment. There were four instructors. They were all great." Wapple says some of the students self-fund based on the practical reason that jobs are going to be available upon graduation, and any money invested in education will quickly be returned by pay cheques.

The HEO training program is delivered in Nanaimo, and the work experience occurs off-campus.

COMING MARCH 2022

Derek McAfee putting excavator through the paces (watch VIU Youtube Video at the bottom of this page)

DELIVERED IN WOSS, B.C.

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