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Putting Fork Lift Operators in the Driver’s Seat

Classroom learning is one thing, but to be a truly effective, safe, and efficient forklift driver, you really need to get behind the wheel of a modern vehicle and see what it’s like to move the “forks” up and down, transport product from Point A to Point B, and safely operate this critical piece of warehousing and distribution equipment.

Unfortunately, not all students have access to real-life forklifts, or the ones that they can climb into and drive around are limited in scope and capability. Soon, students in Southwestern Illinois College’s (SWIC) warehousing and distribution program will be able to do just that.

Thanks to a DB Schenker donation of “gently used” forklifts that still have useful life in them— despite being ready to exit the logistics provider’s fleet—SWIC teachers will be imparting more behind-the-wheel experience. This, in turn, assures that graduates are more prepared to fill warehousing and distribution roles in today’s workforce.

“SWIC was looking for local companies that might be willing to donate some equipment,” says Richard Bywater, DB Schenker’s Quality Assurance Manager and a SWIC instructor.

Bywater, who helped establish the college’s warehousing and distribution program 10 years ago, says that when he heard that his firm would be “scrapping” some of its older fork lifts, he spoke to his general manager about a possible donation to SWIC. “He was very receptive to the idea,” says Bywater. “That’s how the ball got rolling.”

More “Seat Time” Wanted

Founded in 1946, Southwestern Illinois College was originally known as Belleville Junior College and operated under the jurisdiction of Belleville Township High School District 201. That year, the institution enrolled 169 students for its first fall class, more than 60 percent of whom were young veterans of World War II. In 2000, the college name changed to Southwestern Illinois College.

Today, the school operates an extensive instructional network with campuses in Belleville, Granite City, and Red Bud, an Industrial Training Center at the Sam Wolf Granite City Campus, and over 20 off-campus sites, most of which are located in district high schools.

In his course, Bywater teaches one of five warehousing and distribution sections. “There’s a bit of math and a whole lot of forklift driving,” he notes. Currently being expanded to incorporate new topics and hands-on activities, the program provides a solid educational foundation for aspiring supply chain professionals. However, it can’t always accommodate the students’ forklift “seat time” requirements.

“Students need time behind the wheel, and SWIC is always looking for donations to help out with this need,” says Bywater, who joined DB Schenker about six years ago. He recalls a previous forklift donation (from another provider) roughly nine years ago, but says that for the most part students must practice—one student at a time—on the school maintenance department’s lift truck.

“We do use a forklift in the class, but it’s not one that operators would use in a warehouse setting,” Bywater explains. “It does give pupils some seat time, but it really just entails blocking off a section of the parking lot and then just driving the vehicle around in that area. Students don’t get to pick up and/or put away pallets.”

Putting the Power in Their Hands

Not being able to manipulate a forklift around distribution center racking, pick up pallets, or put away products is kind of like “taking your driver’s license test without ever being behind the wheel of a car,” says Bywater. “Our goal is to let the students drive around a bit, experiment with the forklift’s functionalities, and make sure that when they do start working they’ll be more comfortable with the whole process.”

This month, Bywater and the rest of the faculty in SWIC’s warehousing and distribution program will get their wish. DB Schenker plans to donate at least one of its existing lift trucks to the school, which in turn will use it for education and training.

Main Training Source

Once onsite, Brad Sparks, SWIC’s dean of technical education, says the vehicles will be used for the hands-on portion of SWIC’s forklift operator training. “The students will actually have a chance to practice driving and operating a forklift, much like they would be doing in the industrial/warehousing environment,” says Sparks. Also on SWIC’s agenda is the creation of a “forklift space” that includes pallet racks and other pieces of equipment that mimic the industrial setting.

“Once we have that space established, we’ll have an even more realistic learning environment for students to practice in,” says Sparks. “That, in turn, will give them a head start in the job market.” The forklift donation will also help SWIC train a higher number of forklift operators and then get them out into the field.

“We’re hoping to be the main training source for forklift operators in the region,” says Sparks, “and a primary source for area industries.”

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