By Karin Falcone Krieger

Excavator, backhoe, skid-steer, front-end loader and bulldozer are some of the heaviest tools of the construction trade, and The Learn Center in Ronkonkoma, N.Y. is training people with disabilities to operate these powerful machines.

The economic downturn of the late 2000’s adversely affected the entire construction industry, including George Guidi’s excavation business, which had been started by his father 60 years before at the same Ronkonkoma location.

Guidi and an old high school friend, Chris Locovare, both engineers, met again by chance. They started with just an idea – start a school to train people to safely operate the heavy equipment Guidi had grown up with. After an exhaustive process of inspections, audits and certifications, in 2011, The Learn Center became the first and only heavy equipment operator and safety training school licensed by the New York State Education Department (NYSED).

As a result, the school became eligible for referrals from NYSED’s Adult Career and Continuing Education Services and Vocation Rehabilitation (ACCESS-VR) whose mission it is to assist individuals with disabilities to achieve and maintain employment.

ACCESS-VR began to refer people with all types of disabilities, and The Learn Center provided them with skills to operate the powerful machines. Potential students are evaluated to see if they are a good fit. Many had already been in physically demanding construction trades, but had sustained injuries that limited their mobility.

Since heavy machine operation is done primarily while seated, these experienced workers could stay in the industry they knew by acquiring this new set of skills. “Our goal here is to get people jobs,” Guidi said. “Operators are in high demand right now.”

The school’s co-founders Guidi and Locovare became curious, “Can a person who has a prosthetic leg operate the five different types of machines?” They simply did not know if it was possible.

In 2018, they recruited Mike Sweeny, a below the knee amputee, to operate the equipment under the guidance of a safety instructor. “My biggest issue is that I cannot bend my leg more than 70 degrees. Also, it is my right foot. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do it, but as long as I could operate the gas pedal, it worked out great,” Sweeny said.

“I was in BACLocal 7, theTile Marble and Terrazzo union.” Sweeny said.“A typical job was doing an 80,000 square foot floor in an airport. I had to give up that kind of construction.” In 2012, while riding his motorcycle, he was hit by a truck making an illegal U-turn on the bridge at Ronkonkoma Train station. The accident nearly cost him his life.

“After Mike operated all the machines really well, we were ready to bring a student in,” Locovare, now the school’s Safety Officer, said.

“In 2008 I had a devastating accident,” said Graduate Brandon Lee in a recorded testimonial he made for the school. “I had always worked with my hands, but due to this accident I lost my leg and I wasn’t able to work the same way again… They taught me how to drive heavy equipment. Within less than a year of graduating, I got a job…” 

More than 68 percent of Learn Center graduates are employed in the field a year after graduation. The school is currently hoping to recruit a person with one or two prosthetic hands to do a trial run on the machines, as Sweeny did.

Students come to the Learn Center through ACCESS-VR, and The Learn Center will also refer students to ACCESS-VR who may be eligible for their vocational and financial assistance. “A lot of people have disabilities that are not visible,” Locovare said.

Current student Nathaniel Vereen has ACCESS-VR support for his training. Substance abuse contributed to his need for career assistance. “This pushed me in the right direction. I want to be here. I have six days left to complete.” He was operating a backhoe independently, mastering the enormous machine that will become Vereen’s new trade.

The Learn Center is also contracted with Eastern and Western Suffolk BOCES to provide continuing adult education to people of all abilities.