In 2022, the Georgia Department of Education began implementing a new Heavy Equipment Operator (HEO) career pathway in select high schools and career academies. In 2023, Metter College & Career Academy began offering the program, and it already has paid off for senior Zach Driggers.
Zach caught the attention of Reeves Construction Company officials in November, when the MCCA HEO Simulator class traveled to nearby Statesboro to participate in their Hydraulic Excavator Operator Capstone Project.
Performing various tasks for Reeves evaluators, including trenching, backfilling, and bench loading a dump truck, Driggers earned a perfect score of 25 out of 25. That accomplishment earned him a “Smooth Operator” distinction – and a job offer. In February 2024, Zach began a Work Based Learning position as a heavy equipment operator at Reeves’ Statesboro asphalt plant, and there’s room for him to grow if he so desires.
“Getting to Zach kind of early, we’re hoping that he does make it a career and he moves up on through everything that Reeves has to offer,” said Darcy Overbey, HR Business Partner with Reeves Construction. “We’re starting him out at one of the asphalt plants because it’s close for him, but there are definitely opportunities for him to grow into other areas.”
The Reeves-Driggers connection is exactly the kind of opportunity that was envisioned when State School Superintendent Richard Woods announced the new program in late 2021.
“The Heavy Equipment [Operator] pathway ensures another opportunity available in Georgia schools for students to gain skills to help them succeed in the future,” Woods said. “Our goal is that, when students graduate from a Georgia high school, they are prepared for their next step – whether that’s enrolling in a college or university, immediately entering the workforce, or enlisting in the military.”
By partnering with the Georgia Highway Contractors Association and schools such as MCCA, Reeves is able to meet students such as Driggers, hire young talent, and help close the vast workforce gap.
“Building that relationship and getting to know them a little bit more has really been something that we’re trying to get into,” Overbey said. ““The Georgia Highway Contractors Association has done a great job of reaching out to companies and pairing us up with schools in the area. I think before we were all trying to do it on our own, but they are kind of spreading the wealth so that we can cover more high schools, and I think there are more and more coming online. For us, with Metter being close to Statesboro, it was kind of an easy one for us.
“We’re excited that [Driggers] is our first hire going through that program,” she added.
Zach is excited, too. It’s been a whirlwind journey for him, considering that less than six months before beginning a real-world industry job, he wasn’t even sure what he was getting into with instructor Doug James’ HEO class.
“I didn’t know what the class was about, because [MCCA] had just gotten it, but as time went on, we all enjoyed it,” recalls Driggers, who has earned CAT certifications in Industry Fundamentals and Occupational Safety, and Hydraulic Excavator. His new WBL job pays twice the hourly wage he was making in his previous part-time job at a local pharmacy, and he has become something of an inspiration for his classmates.
“More people have been looking into it, because they see the job opportunities that are available,” he says. “I know we have another senior who’s also going to start work there after high school.”
James expects the HEO program to have enough enrollment in the 2024-2025 schoolyear to hold two classes. And he has no doubt Driggers will continue to be successful, both at Reeves and in the classroom as he finishes his senior year.
“He’s got a good work ethic,” James says. “He’s a smart kid, a good problem solver – he figures things out. He just kind of carries himself in the construction world. When you see him out there, he looks like one of the guys – I mean, he looks like a 30-year-old construction worker. He’s a leader in the class because of his age and how well he’s doing with the simulators, and obviously getting that job. The kids look up to him, which definitely has been a positive thing for him, I believe.”
Zach grew up helping his father, a plumber, during summer breaks. After beginning the HEO program, he learned about another family connection to the construction industry.
“My mom told me that my grandfather and my great-grandfather owned a construction business, and they had excavators,” he said. “I didn’t realize that until after I heard about this class.”
Thanks to the simulator experience he’s received this schoolyear, Zach is confident in his ability as he moves to an actual heavy equipment role with Reeves. The simulators, he said, “make a difference in the workforce. Everything’s there – whatever’s on that simulator is on the excavator.”