Fritz Panek has more than 40 years experience in the construction industry before being brought on part-time as the large heavy equipment instructor at the Operating Engineers Local 49 Training Center. “I can run any piece of equipment when it comes to dirt work,” said Panek.
Panek grew up on a dairy farm, and graduated from high school in 1973. Panek said the day after he graduated he was immediately on a push-cat dozer. “My dad had a little construction company with a couple of dozers and scrapers so I went to work for him, and worked for him for about seven years,” Panek said.
In April of 1980 is when Panek got his first chance to work with a union contractor. “I worked for Blatner where I worked on (Interstate Highway) I35 East on Cedar Avenue, but I also worked all over the country for them.”
In 1988 Panek took a career leap and started his own business with his three brothers. “I felt there was a niche for what I was going to be doing, and I had a gravel pit on my own farm so I didn’t have to buy gravel, which helped me a lot to get started,” he said about starting his own business. “I started out with just a dump truck and a loader, and then later down the line I invested in a crusher, conveyors and excavators,” Panek continued.
Panek eventually sold his business in 2005 to a local contractor, and went into semi-retirement until 2009 when the health insurance market changed, and his wife Mary switched careers. “It was in 2009 when the health insurance market got out of hand when I went back into the union to become an operator,” stated Panek. “Local 49 has way better health insurance than just about anybody; we get everything covered.”
Panek worked for Kuechle Underground out of Kimball, MN for a few years then worked for Landwehr and Hardrives before being presented with the offer of becoming a part time instructor at the Local 49 Training Center. “It’s very rewarding that you get to help people advance in their training and career,” Panek said of the opportunity.
Panek currently teaches large heavy equipment classes, but says his favorite is the loaders. “I have over 35 years of experience with loaders so I like to think I know what I’m talking about,” Panek said with a laugh.
Panek says he stresses to his classes the importance of being involved in the union and knowing the issues that affect them and their work. “I’ve been way more involved than when I was younger, and I do preach about that during my classes,” Panek said. “I keep them up to date with what’s going on with Right to Work issues and stuff on the (Local 49) website.”
Panek also educates members on the importance of knowing about all of the benefits that are available to them and their family. “I talk to them about the insurance and about the health meetings,” said Panek. “I went to my first one in 2010, and I didn’t know half of the stuff we had, so I try to educate them about all of the information.”
Panek particularly encourages the younger members about how being in Local 49 can not only lead you to a good job, but a long-lasting career. “There is always roads that are going to need to be built and structures to put up, so if you’re willing to put in the time and work, this is a great and rewarding career.”
For more stories like Fritz’s visit www.local49training.org.