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Highway Construction Article December 28, 2000
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When I was three, my parents moved from Michigan to a suburb of Chicago, and one of my first memories of our new home was when


When I was three, my parents moved from Michigan to a suburb of Chicago, and one of my first memories of our new home was when workers came to pave the driveway. Peaking my head out the door, I saw this mini two-drum roller spinning around the inside of our garage. The sight intrigued and scared me, so I made a quick exit and went back to creating havoc inside. I’ve never shared that story with anyone before . . . not to a parent or a teacher.


The topic was simply never brought up, a dilemma the roadbuilding industry probably wishes it knew about back in the ’70s. Until recently, teaching and discussing pavement projects of any size rarely took place in communities like mine, which is a big reason why the highway construction business, feeling the effects of a retiring "Baby Boom" generation, is tapping into the want ads and looking for skilled workers. The shortage is making news.


The Chicago Tribune reported in May that in Illinois construction jobs are growing at a faster rate than any other job category. In March, the number of construction jobs rose 5.8% to 216,500. The growth rate for jobs in general over a 12-month span was 1.7% in the state.


In July, a group of workers shut down a section of I-70 near St. Louis, demanding the state of Missouri hire more minority contractors for highway construction projects (see Showing Anger in the Show Me State, September 1999, p 25). In response to the news, Executive Vice President of the Associated General Contractors of Missouri Dan Kraft stated, "I would bet in most union halls there are very, very few people who are looking for work that are not employed."


In the first of a three-part series, ROADS & BRIDGES takes a look at how the industry is trying to match workers for dollars, which continue to fly in following the passing of the federal surface transportation acts, ISTEA and TEA-21, whether it be through recruitment or continuing education.


Federal aid


In conjunction with the Tranportation Research Board, the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) are about to launch an across-the-board study of workforce needs in surface transportation for the next two decades.


"State DOTs that have the hiring authority to bring on a whole crew of bridge engineers can’t find them," Joe Toole, director of professional development for the FHWA, told ROADS & BRIDGES. "We’re hearing this throughout, but what we really wanted to do was a more documented and more serious study."


The study is expected to begin in the next month and will probably take until the spring of next year to complete. Toole is hoping the facts and figures will give the industry a better idea of what the needs are when the next reauthorization of funds takes place.


"I’m really interested in finding out what are the things that we’re doing as an industry to make our jobs more attractive, to make them more adaptable to the people who are coming in and may have a different set of skills," said Toole.


Toole and Co. may find a different set of circumstances abroad when a group travels to Europe during the next fiscal year. The American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials recently approved an international scanning tour which will study what other countries are doing in terms of training and development. Toole, however, wants the group to contain individuals who can shake up policy in the U.S.


U.S. DOT and FHWA are becoming more visible in the education spectrum.


There are 130 courses taught through the National Highway Institute (NHI), and last year alone 557 sessions were conducted in the program throughout the country. ITE, ITS America, the National Transit and the Merchant Marine Academy are just a few of the affiliates which now offer courses via the NHI catalog, and Toole sees the partnership expanding in the future.


The Dwight D. Eisenhower Transportation Fellowship Program started in the summer of 1992, with the objective "to attract, enhance and retain the brightest minds in transportation-related disciplines." Run by the U.S. DOT and FHWA, the Eisenhower Fellowship Program awards approximately 125 fellowships to applicants from 550 universities. Winners receive tuition, a monthly stipend and a travel allowance to attend the annual Transportation Research Board meeting each January in Washington, D.C., where they present abstracts of their research projects.


"We’ve had over 800 students go through the program," said Toole. "Of the people who have gone through that program, 75% to 85% are now in transportation careers."


A new wrinkle in the U.S. DOT/FHWA education agenda is distance learning. Four pilot efforts on web-based training are currently being developed. Reaching the people involved with ITS and other advanced technologies shouldn’t be a problem, but there is a question on how to reach the maintenance and construction field—a detail the FHWA hopes to solve.


There also are 57 Local Technical Assistance Programs (LTAP) Centers located across the country. LTAPs were created to try to provide a linkage to local governments. The FHWA supports each center with around $100,000 a year in federal funds, which is matched dollar-for-dollar at the local level. LTAPs have two functions: they provide training courses for local governments and state governments; and they help implement technology.


"We have a center in virtually every state, and we have six tribal centers that serve tribal governments as well," said Toole.


The light turns green


Garrett Augustus Morgan was an African-American inventer who created the three-position traffic signal, and on May 30, 1997, U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater gave the green light to a program that has been both productive and encouraging over the last two years.


The Garrett A. Morgan Program, designed to reach students in kindergarten through 12th grade, uses U.S. DOT resources, especially current technology, education and research programs, to forge partnerships with all sectors of the transportation community, including state transportation departments, the education community, private sector and other parts of the federal government.


The aim is to improve the students’ math, science and technology skills; strengthen the links between the transportation sector and community colleges, junior colleges and technical schools; expand transportation programs at undergraduate and graduate institutions; and to promote life-long learning to ensure the availability and accessibility of continuing education programs for transportation practitioners.


Slater hoped to reach 1 million children by 2001. According to Charlotte Sakai, database manager for the Garrett Morgan Program, the goal has been met . . . and continues to be exceeded.


"Because we’re seeing a lot of the transportation workforce retiring right now we’re going to need new skilled people coming into the workforce," Sakai told ROADS & BRIDGES. "Especially right now, we need them to be technologically literate. So this is what the program is aimed at doing, to try to get those students literate and to get them in the transportation workforce."


Two effective means of recruitment through the program have been the School-to-Work program and Job Shadow Day.


The School-to-Work program focuses on mentoring, tutoring, curriculum development, career days and work-based learning opportunities to help students become aware of and then prepare for careers in transportation. The U.S. DOT partners with people in the industry to carry out various activities, which include career fairs and mentoring programs.


Job Shadow Day is held every Feb. 2 and gives aspiring transportation workers the chance to come to the workplace and "shadow" DOT employees.


"They go around with the employee and see what it’s like to do whatever that person does," said Sakai, who anticipated as many as 800 students visiting the U.S. DOT for Job Shadow Day this year. "It gives them a feel for the workplace professionalism."


The U.S. DOT also has set up a website (education.dot.gov) which includes activities for kids, education pages, resources for college students, career information and links to different agencies within the U.S. DOT.


All on their own


If somebody was to follow Pat Lees around they might be asked to give a plate or two a spin.


Lees is the director of training services for Nichols Consulting Engineers, Reno, Nev., and her job is to make sure none of the programs offered by the company lose momentum.


"I’ve always characterized my job as that guy on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ who had the plates on sticks and he had to spin them, and he had to keep all those plates in the air at the same time and hope that none of them hit the floor," Lees told ROADS & BRIDGES.


And Nichols Consulting Engineers certainly has a lot "airborne," such as:


  • Providing training to the National Highway Institute;

  • Developing a program on coalition building in the industry;

  • Working with Nevada’s School-to-Careers program;

  • Online training; and

  • Developing a curriculum to create a two-year degree program in pavement technology.

The last bullet could be considered the platter of Lees’ balancing act. Forming a college curriculum has been big in terms of time and one particular obstacle—money. An outline has been prepared and Nichols Consulting Engineers will run a pair of courses this spring at Peralta Community College, Oakland, Calif., to see exactly what the need is.


"We’ve talked to people all over the country to see what the interest would be, but what we really need is somebody to give us the money to finish the curriculum," said Lees.


At the conclusion of the two-year degree program, students would have the certification required by TEA-21 and could go on for a four-year civil engineering degree. Lees hopes once the curriculum is formed it could serve as a prototype for others in the U.S.


"There’s a critical mass already developed, we just need a punch line," she said.


Nichols’ School-to-Careers program hit hundreds of kids across the state of Nevada during its first year of action. Using the framework of how to build a road, Nichols showed junior high and high school students what role a technician and civil engineer play at each stage of the job.


The first phase of the program kicked in before representatives from Nichols arrived at the school. Kids were asked to participate in a scavenger hunt that involved looking for certain road features. Then, after the one- or two-hour sessions, some students had one-on-one conversations with technicians and engineers, and all received follow-up activities for continued development in the field. There also was a resource document available which contained website addresses, school and financial information and job descriptions for about 12 different positions.


"We found the most enthusiasm from the junior high kids, who are the most curious and have the fewest internal constraints," said Lees. "They jump up in the air, ask questions and observe things."


Nichols is anxious to continue its online training, which was done over a three-month period in the fall. Students all over the U.S. and Canada logged online with an instructor for two hours once a week.


"The neatest thing about that was it was the students who were actually helping each other," said Lees.


Nichols would like to do more with online training, but is looking for sponsors.


More to learn


The U.S. DOT and Nichols Consulting Engineers aren’t the only ones holding class. The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) has received strong response to their fifth-grade construction education curriculum, which is packaged in a Build Up! tool kit.


The Build Up! curriculum is an initiative designed by AGC, in conjunction with Scholastic Inc., to enhance the image of the construction industry through coordinated educational and community service activities. The activity kit includes lesson plans and materials for classroom projects, copies of the book Up Goes the Skyscraper and a 30-minute video on "How They Build Bridges".


As of September 1999, over 4,000 kits have been sold.


Caterpillar, Peoria, Ill., has hooked up with Matchbox to develop a CD computer game called "Construction Zone." The 3D environment allows operators to choose from six different Cat machines to take on different missions, which range from a common public works problem, digging up and replacing a broken pipe under a paved street, to coping with the eruption of a volcano near a city. Each mission requires completing two or three jobs.


Come together . . . right now


Several organizations and companies in the industry have gone their separate way in regards to recruitment and training, but perhaps the next step is developing a more team atmosphere, one that encourages information sharing.


"What we’re seeing is a lot of people moving out, taking things independently," said Toole, "and what I believe is we can start bringing these things together, start getting some synergy behind it all."


Toole also doesn’t think training and education should be viewed as a cost.


"What it should be viewed as is an investment," he said. "It’s a long-term investment.


"This whole effort isn’t going to be a brochure that you hand out at a high school or a pencil that has ‘Be an engineer’ written on it. If you were a kid 17 years old and you had two job opportunities, one of them was standing behind a cash register and the other was standing behind an asphalt paver on a hundred-degree day, which would you choose? We need to work on how we can change the perception of our industry," he added.


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