By Jessica Peterson, Contributing Author
With winter almost here, local transportation departments are gearing up to make sure they’re ready to quickly treat and clear weather-impacted roads when storms hit. But staffing shortages continue to make this preparation difficult for many agencies around the country.
Filling vacancies will be an ongoing challenge as many public works agencies lose experienced employees to retirement.
The next generation needs to be trained — for the sake of the infrastructure they will inherit and eventually pass along.
In Colorado, Front Range Community College (FRCC) has built a program that brings high school students into a senior seminar in public works and road maintenance. Offered to high school seniors, it’s designed to provide a smooth on-ramp to a career in public works.
This is a program that, if emulated across the country by other community colleges, could help the roads and bridges construction industry solve its labor crisis. This story examines how FRCC’s program works.
“Through this program, your agency can hire high school graduates who are knowledgeable in the industry, eager to work, and looking for a career in transportation operations,” said Sue Baillargeon, director of FRCC’s highway maintenance management program. “Your agency gets to train them—on the job—to your own specifications through the internship piece of the program.”
Students take two road maintenance-related classes at FRCC for free. The classes are offered remotely, and the program includes:
OSHA-10 Certification (1 credit)
Highway Maintenance 101 (3 credits)
The highway maintenance course focuses on safety practices, asset management, road preservation and treatments, and traffic control devices and signage. It also acquaints students with how government agencies work.
Students discuss the future of the industry, while also learning the leadership and management skills necessary to run a public works team. At the end of the class, they get advice on résumé writing and useful guidance on applying for jobs.
FRCC helps each student line up a paid internship for after their high school graduation. Partner agencies—like public works departments or traffic control companies—hire interns for six to eight weeks, with the intention to hire them as full-time employees once they successfully complete the program.
As interns, students gain practical experience in public works and road maintenance.
This high school program is an offshoot of FRCC’s associate degree program in highway maintenance management, which began in 2019. It’s the first degree of its kind in the nation—and because the entire program is offered online, it already has students and graduates from 14 states.
Building a Workforce Pipeline
Each organization that partners with FRCC gets to specify the skills they want their interns to learn. That way, they end up training employees who have the exact know-how their agency or company needs.
“Our interns have really stepped up and one is showing great leadership potential. We plan on giving him some training responsibilities soon,” said Andrea Severin, co-owner of Loveland Barricade, a Colorado-based traffic control company.
FRCC’s program trains students to recognize safety hazards, and they’re ready to perform manual labor tasks like sweeping, shoveling, painting, or any other entry level tasks on their first day.
Most students who participate aren’t planning to attend college. They often want to work in the town where they live. That means they already know the area.
Depending on the competencies decided on by the agency and FRCC’s program director, the students may come out of the internship with:
Skills such as basic traffic control and small tool usage.
Experience applying preservation treatments to road surfaces.
Knowledge of local assets.
These workers are employable in almost any public works agency. And because the students are starting their careers young, they’re likely to remain employed in the local workforce for many years.
In FRCC’s highway maintenance program, students earn college credit while still in high school, and they get paid to gain practical work experience—under the supervision of an experienced employer and college faculty member.
During the internship, students get work experiences that take the knowledge and skills they have learned in the classroom and apply them on the job.
Since FRCC’s courses offer remote learning, agencies around the country can enroll their local students in the senior seminar in public works and road maintenance. (Under the current funding model, the students do have to still be in high school—because school districts reimburse the college for the courses).
Most districts pay for concurrent enrollment courses, but if you’re not sure whether your local district does this, you can usually find that information on the school district website.
So far, most of the agencies that take FRCC interns have paid for the two college credits the students earn through the internship. (There are two models for this: Some simply pay the bill and consider it an investment in their new employee. Others pay the bill and deduct it from the intern’s pay in increments over time.) Either method allows the student to participate without any out-of-pocket expenses.
For agencies that may not be able to foot the bill, the Front Range Community College Foundation—the school’s fundraising arm—has scholarship money available, which students are eligible for once they register at the college. For local Colorado agencies that take FRCC interns, the college can offer free training from the state’s Local Technical Assistance Program in exchange for what the agency pays for the internship credits.
After students finish their internship, they can also take the six college credits they’ve earned and apply them toward a degree in highway maintenance management from FRCC—the only associate degree program in the country in this field.
Baillargeon said the next step for FRCC will be the creation of a new bachelor’s degree program for the program’s graduates, so that they can continue their education and build onto their associate degree.
For now, Baillargeon said she hopes to expand the existing high school program to include more employers around Colorado—and hopefully in other states, as well. “Tapping into this rich candidate pool is a great way for employers to invest in their local graduates, their community and their own teams,” she said. R&B
Jessica Peterson is the public relations director at Front Range Community College.