Theresa Garland

Trinidad State’s heavy equipment training opens up lifetime career opportunities

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 The demand for heavy equipment operators is so high right now, most of the students in the Trinidad State program have serious job prospects even though they haven’t graduated yet.  

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says demand will grow 12 percent a year through 2026. At Trinidad State’s practice field near the Trinidad Landfill nine students practice each day in an array of monster machines.

“On each piece of equipment, like I tell them,” said Trinidad State Heavy Equipment Instructor Shem Montoya, “they’re not going to leave this program as a master operator, however they’ll take the safety side with them.”  

Students train on the skid steer, front-end loader, motor grader, excavator, bulldozer, back hoe, dump truck compactor and telehandler forklift, plus the basic core curriculum which covers regulations and safety.  

The class is intensive, with 25 credit-hours needed for completion. Normally a full time college student only takes 15 hours in one semester.  Nine students are in the class, including one high school junior from Aguilar. He’s on track to have a certificate by the time he graduates from high school.

Theresa Garland, 57, is one of three women currently in the program. She moved to Trinidad with her husband a few years ago after he retired from the Marines. She recently graduated as a Registered Nurse and then decided she’d rather be a heavy equipment operator. She had heard about the program while a nursing student.  She had been a heavy equipment mechanic in the Marines for a short time and said, “I want to do this more than I want to do anything else.”  

At 32-years-old, Brandy Pfaffenhauser plans to graduate and then go out and make as much money as she can. She decided to enroll on a Friday in January and was in the class the following Monday.  She already holds a CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) and has driven big trucks in the oil and gas industry.  

Pfaffenhauser might have been able to work her way into heavy equipment operation through on-the-job training. “But to have a certification?  It’s another notch in the belt,” Pfaffenhauser said.  She figures that will get her an extra $10 an hour.  “They could put us in in West Virginia, Texas, Hawaii, Alaska, you know, anywhere.” She prefers the biggest machines, excavators, graders, scrapers and bulldozers ­— the ones that can move the most dirt.  

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the median income for a heavy equipment operator in 2017 was $46,000 a year. Many make far more because of overtime pay.  

Another woman in the program with a truck driving background is Amber Kindle. She spent two years in trucks and drove in Colorado, Montana, California, Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming and Utah.  

“The main thing that I’ve picked up on is there’s a whole new set of things to do for safety,” said Kindle.  She plans to work in the oil fields or in water and sewer excavation.

Later this month the students will travel to Pueblo West where they’ll test on various pieces of equipment.

“They have to demonstrate knowledge of the safety side of the equipment, doing a 360 walk around and then maneuvering the machine as instructed,” said Montoya.  For each successful test they’ll get a certificate from the National Center for Construction Education and Research verifying they are qualified to operate that piece of equipment.

The next class starts in August at Trinidad State. For more information contact Greg Boyce call his office at 719-846-5530 or email at

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