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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 73 · No. 5 > Recruiting Effort Is a Sweet Success

March/April 2010
Vol. 73 · No. 5

Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-10-001

Recruiting Effort Is a Sweet Success

by Carey Shepherd

Promising careers — and brownies — entice a diverse pool of young people to consider the transportation construction field in Florida.

At South Florida Construction Career Days, representatives of an engineering firm (left) show students how to purify water with peppermint, one of many innovative approaches to pique young peoples’ interest in science and engineering.
At South Florida Construction Career Days, representatives of an engineering firm (left) show students how to purify water with peppermint, one of many innovative approaches to pique young peoples' interest in science and engineering.

Most places, the smell of warm brownies would signal a nearby bakery or at least lunch. But that was not the case in Davie, FL, for 2 days in October 2009. The rich brownie smell was wafting from one of the activities during the South Florida Construction Career Days.

Now in its ninth year, Construction Career Days featured dozens of hands-on transportation construction and consulting activities, including a "chocolate asphalt" tutorial. Students discovered the cohesive properties of road asphalt by mixing nuts, coconut, and crackers into a warm brownie batter, then rolling it into a sweet, messy chocolate miniature road that filled the air with an aroma arguably much more appealing than any petroleum product.

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) sponsors the annual event, one of many transportation career days held across the Nation. As elsewhere, the South Florida Construction Career Days were a labor of love involving hundreds of volunteers. At this event, the volunteers represented more than 50 contractors, consultants, colleges, and government agencies. They worked together to bring high school students a glimpse of the myriad career opportunities in transportation construction and engineering, plus professional services.

Students roll out brownie mix into "chocolate asphalt."
Students roll out brownie mix into "chocolate asphalt."

About 1,500 area high school students received hands-on introductions to highway surveying, design, construction equipment, grading, filling, earthmoving, traffic maintenance, signalization, water testing, media relations, intelligent transportation systems, and more. Area colleges and technical schools teamed with industry representatives to provide career counseling and share information about their curricula. The Florida Highway Patrol was on hand to impart life-saving traffic safety tips, one of which was to not drive drunk. Attendees had the opportunity to try on a pair of special glasses that give the wearer the illusion of drunkenness.

Bob Burleson, president of the Florida Transportation Builders' Association, conducted the formalities that opened the event, assisted by Judy Paul, mayor of Davie; Jennifer Olson, chief operating officer of Florida's Turnpike Enterprise; Jim Wolfe, secretary of FDOT District 4; and Ellen Navarro, standing in for State Senator Nan H. Rich.

Dan Weekley, president of a paving company, received the 2009 Outstanding Prime Contractor/Consultant award from the Southern Transportation Civil Rights Executive Council. During his acceptance speech, Weekley pointed out the benefits of the Construction Career Days: "When you expose this many young people to something, you can't help but benefit," he said. "Everyone talks about the numbers — how many kids [attend], how to track them, et cetera. But look at these kids. They are listening and learning. What if they slow down in a construction zone? What if they are a little less impatient when sitting in construction traffic? Then we all benefit." What's more, he added, some of them will tell their parents that "there are exciting and good-paying jobs in our industry."

According to Marty Anderson, a contract compliance manager at FDOT District 4 who specializes in equal employment opportunities and is one of the founders of the event in Florida, most attendees at the Career Days event were African-Americans, Hispanics, and/or females, bucking the stereotype that the transportation industry is unwelcoming to women and minorities. "Look around. You'll see that it isn't the girls who are hanging back and watching," Anderson says. "They are the ones on the equipment, working the simulators, asking questions, and getting the most out of the program."

Paul Kynerd, a teacher at the Miami Lakes Educational Center, notes that, of his top five students, four were minority females in 2009. However, he adds, that proportion does not carry over into the transportation construction industry. "There is a sexist culture in this country that females can't do math," Kynerd says. "Events like this dispel that idea and help improve female representation in all the sciences."

Measuring Career Days' success is an ongoing task, gauging the extent to which these events strengthen the transportation industry with a pool of fresh applicants and increase parity in a field not traditionally populated by women and minorities. However, one thing is clear: Career Days is a hit among South Florida teachers, volunteers, students, and construction industry representatives.

 Students had the chance to operate various pieces of construction equipment, such as this backhoe.
Students had the chance to operate various pieces of construction equipment, such as this backhoe.

Carey Shepherd joined the Federal Highway Administration in 2008 as coordinator of the Florida Division's Civil Rights Program. Prior to that, he worked in investigations and enforcement for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and former Immigration and Naturalization Service. He has a B.A. in English and Spanish from The Florida State University and a J.D. from Mississippi College.

For more information, contact Carey Shepherd at 850-942-9650 or carey.shepherd@dot.gov.

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