A University of Alaska Southeast simulator called the Cyber-Mine is helping to train students to drive 40-ton mine-hauling trucks, while avoiding the risks involved in using real equipment.
There aren't many places in the country where you can go from high school to an $80,000-a-year job in just five weeks. That's why UAS decided to get the $800,000 mine simulator.
The Cyber-Mine is the size of a large trailer and filled with equipment that borrows a page from the aviation industry, which trains its pilots on sophisticated flight simulators.
Students who enter the program usually have their tuition paid for through a U.S. Department of Labor grant. They must pass a rigorous interview process that includes drug testing, submitting a resume and filling out forms.
Qualified candidates move on to the simulator, where instructors relentlessly throw problems at them -- including problems that would be far too dangerous to simulate in the real world.
"So here you get a fire," said simulation supervisor John Ballard. "They can actually hit the fire-suppression and put it out; in real-life training you couldn't do that, because it would be too expensive."
Ballard can also thrown a blown tire at the students. In real life, it would cost a fortune to deliberately blow out $30,000 tires -- which have been known to blow the roofs off repair shops when they accidentally rupture.
After accidents or errors in the Cyber-Mine, however, no one has been hurt and nothing has been damaged. Instructors just hit the reset button.
At the end of the five-week-course, students are ready to go straight to work. The mine simulator just started operating in February, and has already graduated its first class of 10 students. Nine of them already have jobs, and UAA says it hasn't heard any complaints from the mines that hired them.
"It's very realistic," says instructor Mike Bell, who like Ballard has actually worked in mines. "You sort of forget that you're in a trainer. It seems like a real truck inside a real mine."
Luke Zimmer, a student who took the course and now works inside a mine, concurs with his instructors.
"In a real-life situation, you've got people out there and everything else," Zimmer said. "You can't make a mistake."
The hope is that as high-paying jobs open up in Alaska mines, their operators can hire Alaskans and not have to search for candidates in the Lower 48.
Email Dan Fiorucci