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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 66· No. 3 > Students Grab the Gold Ring

Nov/Dec 2002
Vol. 66· No. 3

Students Grab the Gold Ring

by Keri A. Funderburg

What do commercial fishing and construction have in common? In a survey conducted in Texas in 2000, parents and their teenage children ranked jobs in these two categories as last among 500 career choices. Jobs in the construction industry often are viewed as low-paid, unchallenging, dirty, and dead-end.

To change the industry's negative image and attract youth to construction careers, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)—along with various partners from the industry and education—helped develop the Construction Career Days initiative, a program designed to promote the construction industry to high school students nationwide. The goal of the initiative is to inform students about the diverse rewarding careers in the construction industry.

Photo of students riding in a lift
At a Construction Career Day in Goshen, OR, students experience a ride in a lift.

Help Wanted

In many ways, the construction industry's poor reputation is undeserved. Many people find well-paid and challenging jobs in the industry. In 2000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, construction workers earned an average of $17.86 per hour, almost $4 more per hour than the average hourly wage for private industry as a whole.

Information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics also shows that construction workers, when compared to employees in other industries, have greater opportunities for owning their own businesses and receiving on-the-job training. However, according to the Bureau's statistics and Humberto Martinez, one of the cofounders of Construction Career Days, a number of factors are hindering the growth of the workforce, which could result in a worker shortage, including:

  • Retirement of the baby boom generation. The average age of workers in skilled trades is currently 48, according to the National Education Association, and many members of the construction industry are retiring or approaching retirement at a faster rate than they can be replaced.
  • Increased employment in service sector jobs. The technology boom of the 1980s and 1990s led many people to choose jobs in service sectors such as the computer field rather than within the construction industry.
  • Uninformed educators. Teachers and guidance counselors often do not know about the career opportunities within the construction industry.
  • Fewer industrial technology classes. When school budgets must be cut, industrial technology courses are often the first to go.

These factors stand to threaten the entire industry and could lead to many unfilled job vacancies. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by the year 2010 job opportunities for construction laborers will grow by 10 to 20 percent and overall opportunities within the industry will increase by 12 percent.

The Birth of Construction Career Days

The worker shortage was already a serious issue in Texas by the late 1990s, manifesting itself in the form of a decrease in the number of bidders submitting quotes for highway construction projects. Mike LaPointe, vice president of J.L. Steel in Roanoke, TX, was one industry member already feeling the impact on his highway construction business. "By 1997, we were really having trouble finding qualified people to work on our projects," he says. "The old methods of recruiting employees through advertisements and word-of-mouth were no longer working."

LaPointe discussed these challenges with three colleagues: Greg Mooney, a fellow member of the private highway construction industry; Humberto Martinez, associate director for professional development in FHWA's Office of Civil Rights in Fort Worth, TX; and Ross Martinez, formerly of FHWA and now working as a regional technical engineer for Pavement Technology, Inc.

As the discussions progressed, Mooney suggested marketing career opportunities in the construction industry to high school students at a 1-day, career fair-style event. From there, the Construction Career Days program was born. The original group of four grew rapidly as other individuals and groups, including construction equipment companies, highway construction firms, and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), jumped on board and volunteered to help plan the first event.

Aerial view of equipment layout at a typical Construction Career Day event
An aerial view of the equipment layout at a typical Construction Career Days event, features cranes, backhoes, excavators, graders, and dozers spaced far enough apart to permit safe operation.
Photo of and skilled instructor breaking up concrete
Coached by a skilled instructor, a student tries her hand at breaking up concrete.

A First Time for Everything

As the organizing group started marketing the idea, highway construction professionals were excited, but many teachers were skeptical. "Construction Career Days was a hard sell at first," says FHWA's Humberto Martinez. "Educators thought we were encouraging students to drop out of school and enter the construction industry. Our goal was and still is actually quite the opposite: to tell kids to stay in school, graduate, and then seek out rewarding construction careers." As plans grew, however, many educators realized the importance of this event to students, many of whom were entering their final years of school either contemplating quitting or with no idea of what to do after graduation day.

Many months of planning led to the first Construction Career Days on March 2-5, 1999, in Lewisville, TX. Approximately 1,300 students and teachers attended the event, representing 25 schools and 15 school districts. Most of the once-skeptical educators felt the event was a huge success, and many demanded that a similar career fair be held every year.

The event's success would not have been possible without the Construction Career Days volunteers and the monetary and in-kind contributions from construction businesses and government agencies. FHWA contributed the time of two of its employees along with $5,000. The TxDOT contributed a significant number of employees to serve as tour guides and provide students with an overview of highway construction. Equipment distributors loaned thousands of dollars worth of heavy equipment for the students to operate.

The Texas chapter of Associated General Contractors (AGC) provided the facilities for the group meetings and contributed $25,000. Employees from Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) airport helped with site preparation and equipment donations. "The airport participated in the first event [and subsequent events] because it too was feeling the crunch from the worker shortage, not only in construction, but also in mechanics and other industrial trades," says Frank Hogan, fleet superintendent at DFW Airport.

After the successful first event, the Construction Career Days team decided to expand the effort to the neighboring States (Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Oklahoma). Representatives from FHWA's Fort Worth office, the five State DOTs, the five State Associated General Contractors chapters, and several highway construction firms submitted a unified five-State proposal to FHWA to fund future Construction Career Days. In response, FHWA provided $200,000 for the team to conduct eight additional events: four in Texas and one in each of the four other States.

Three Hours, Three Segments

Since the first Construction Career Days event, the concept has spread throughout the country, with at least 22 States holding one or more events. All of the events follow the same basic format and are divided into three segments:

  • Exhibitor booths. Local highway construction firms, other firms, post-secondary education and career technology schools and universities, transportation agencies, and other organizations display information about their work, potential careers, job requirements, and the steps that students can take to prepare themselves for a successful career in the construction industry.
  • Hands-on activities. Groups of students participate in various activities, including competitions, craft and tool use, construction quiz bowls, and pipe-fitting contests. Winning schools receive a plaque and other prizes.
  • Equipment operations and demonstrations. Heavy construction equipment is provided for use at every event. Skilled operators show the students how to use the equipment and then let them try it for themselves.

Students generally spend about an hour participating in each segment and walk away with an abundance of new information. Many students are surprised at some of the unexpected careers in the construction industry, such as positions for engineers, computer specialists, and accountants as well as the various crafts involved.

By far, the most exciting and educational part of the day for most students is learning how to use the heavy equipment. "Most students don't realize that operating this equipment is challenging work," says Martinez. "Bulldozers today have more computer equipment than the original lunar landing module. Highway construction today is not just about muscle power, but also requires brain power."

Photo of exhibit in gym
In New York State, the gymnasium of a local training facility offered an exhibit area for unions, construction firms, colleges, State and Federal groups, and associations to set up booths.

Summer Transportation Internship Program for Diverse Groups

Many areas of the transportation industry will be affected as members of the baby boom generation retire. At present, about 13 percent of FHWA's 2,680 employees are eligible for retirement. An additional 16 percent will be eligible in 5 years. Some positions within FHWA are more vulnerable than others. Over half of the agency's civil rights, environment, finance, policy, geotechnical, materials, pavement, right-of-way, and structures experts will be eligible for retirement within 10 years.

Recognizing the need to attract bright, young people into the field of transportation, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) created the Summer Transportation Internship Program for Diverse Groups (STIPDG), a program designed to inform undergraduate, graduate, and law students about USDOT. The internship program also is an important part of the Department's effort to promote workplace diversity.

One goal of the program is to show young people that opportunities are available for students in a wide variety of fields, including:

  • Engineering
  • Planning
  • Economics
  • Transportation management
  • Environmental issues
  • Hazardous materials
  • Aviation
  • Business
  • Public administration
  • Management information systems
  • Law
  • Criminal justice

STIPDG offers participants a 10-week agenda of real-world experience in a transportation-intensive environment of research, work experience, and on-site visits. Each intern has the opportunity to:

  • Work at USDOT in Washington, DC, in a selected modal administration or in selected field offices
  • Visit several transportation facilities
  • Discuss current transportation issues with key officials
  • Attend and participate in a variety of workshops, seminars, and field trips
  • Prepare a written report and make an oral presentation at the end of the internship

In summer 2002, a total of 79 students participated at USDOT offices across the country. Of those, 30 participated in the Washington, DC, area. Field trips included visiting the Office of Materials and Technology and the Coordinated Highways Action Response Team (CHART) center at the Maryland State Highway Administration offices and FHWA's Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center (TFHRC). The DC interns also visited the Volpe Center in Boston.

Marena Tiano, a student in Carnegie Mellon University's master's program in public policy, described her experience as an intern at TFHRC, listing the events she attended: "the International Car Congress, alternative vehicle test-drives, crash tests, TFHRC Leadership Council meetings, a House of Representatives subcommittee hearing on intermodalism, and a transportation professional organization meeting."

Sai Pidatala, a government major at Cornell University, described his experience by saying, "I learned a lot about the inner workings of the USDOT and about how government in general functions to serve the people."

For more information about STIPDG, contact Lorraine Day, 202-366-1159.

Same Show, Different Cities

By the end of 2002, more than 75,000 students across the country will have participated in Construction Career Days. Although most events generally follow the same format, the stimulus can vary, as do some of the activities. For example, the Albany, NY, program was started after Graham Bailey, FHWA assistant division administrator, made a presentation at a local highway construction conference. The presentation caught the attention of Liz Elvin, communications director for the New York State chapter of Associated General Contractors (AGC). She joined with Bailey and others to organize the Albany area's first event, which was held on April 10-11, 2002. "Teachers raved about the event and said it was the best career fair they had ever attended," says Elvin, who is already helping plan another event for April 2003 and is grateful to FHWA for providing encouragement for the Albany event.

At a Glance

Since its inception in 1999, the Construction Career Days concept has spread throughout the country.

As of November 2002:

  • A total of 22 States held one or more events or were planning an event within the next 12 months.
  • More than 75,000 students have attended career day events.
  • No fewer than 500 school districts and 1,100 schools have participated.
  • More than 1,000 pieces of construction equipment have been displayed, and 1,300 exhibitors have participated.

In Eugene, OR, the local chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) provided the impetus for its Construction Career Days event. Nearly 300 high school students attended the event, held in May 2002. Although both male and female students attended, Stephanie Babb, president of the Eugene NAWIC chapter felt the event was particularly important for young women. "Not every girl wants to enter a traditional female job, such as nursing or teaching or wants to work behind a desk," she says. "Construction Career Days shows girls that nontraditional jobs and opportunities exist."

Babb herself worked in a dentist's office prior to entering the construction industry. She explains her career shift, "I find working in the construction industry to be more satisfying. I like that I can point to a building and tell my two children that I had some small part in its construction."

Gathering the Resources

Funding for Construction Career Days has come primarily from FHWA, whose monetary contribution totals more than $1.2 million to date, in addition to the countless hours volunteered by FHWA employees across the country. "My experience working with FHWA and its employees has been great," says AGC's Elvin. "The Albany area would not have had an event without FHWA's funding and volunteers."

In association with Construction Career Days, FHWA also spent $300,000 to fund a Heavy Construction Equipment Operations pilot course in Fort Worth. The course was originally scheduled to run only once, but it was so successful that the school district decided to offer it a second time. Since then, 27 students have participated and earned an Intermediate Heavy Construction Equipment Operators certificate, giving them a step up should they decide to enter the construction industry.

Numerous businesses, State DOTs, highway construction organizations, and other participants also have made sizeable contributions to Construction Career Days. FHWA estimates that total program costs, including both monetary and in-kind contributions (donated materials, equipment, and personnel) from all participants including FHWA are between $7.4 and $9.8 million.

Photo of equipment at training facility during event
A photo taken from the roof of the training facility shows some of the static equipment in the foreground and operating equipment in the background.

Benefits to All

According to Martinez and LaPointe, the reactions of the students are always overwhelmingly positive, so much so that the organizers collected feedback from the educators, exhibitors, and students only at the first two events. After that, the Construction Career Days committee decided that the program was a resounding success and now no longer formally collects participant feedback. The Construction Career Days program also does not track whether students actually enter highway construction as a result of attending an event. However, event organizers frequently hear anecdotal evidence of how the program has changed students' lives.

Frank Hogan of DFW Airport, for example, recalls one female student who attended the event not knowing what she would do after graduation. "Construction Career Days piqued this young woman's interest in operating a construction business," he recalls. "As a result of attending an event, she decided to pursue a college degree in construction management and technology."

Martinez adds that he frequently hears stories of students who decide to stay in school after participating in Construction Career Days.

Students are not the only ones who benefit from the program. Organizers and sponsors also say that they have found the events to be invaluable. "Being involved with Construction Career Days allows NAWIC to get involved with the local community," says Babb, "and gives us all a great sense of personal satisfaction, knowing we helped some kids possibly decide their future."

Other organizers and sponsors often remark that the events help build strong relationships between the construction industry and educators. "By working with local teachers and school boards, Construction Career Days organizers and supporters can influence the local schools' industrial technology curricula to ensure that they include the most current technologies and better prepare kids to enter the construction industry," says Martinez.

The events also help build strong relationships within the construction industry and with FHWA. "Helping to organize the Albany-region event was an outstanding experience," says Elvin. "Never before has AGC worked with such a diverse group of people and organizations, all willing to put aside their own agendas to come together to produce a high-quality event for the benefit of the students."

Photo of students operating backhoe
Students had an opportunity to operate any of these nine backhoe/loaders and two mini-excavators lined up at a New York State event, as as four skid steers.

For contractors, Construction Career Days offers an additional benefit. Participating contractors are considered to have made a good-faith effort toward meeting the equal opportunity requirements of their contracts.

According to Martinez, FHWA also benefits from the program: "Construction Career Days has enabled FHWA to build strong relationships with the construction industry and improved our own ability to attract more qualified workers." Construction Career Days exposes thousands of students each year to career possibilities not only within private industry and State DOTs, but also shows them that there are opportunities within the Federal government for high school graduates with the right skills and a strong work ethic.

Finally, the public benefits from Construction Career Days. "When there is a labor shortage within the transportation construction industry, the public's mobility and safety are directly impacted," says DFW Airport's Hogan. "If the airport or construction firms cannot find anyone to hire, then much-needed transportation projects could be delayed or possibly even canceled."

Photo of student trying welding with a master welder instructing
A student tries a hands-on welding demonstration, learning from a master welder.

The Future Is Bright

Construction Career Days organizers hope that the program will continue to expand as more educators learn about it. Organizers also hope that educators will begin to work with the construction industry between career day events. In some areas, this collaboration is already happening. "Educators are now making their own contacts and building relationships with the construction industry," says LaPointe. "Construction Career Days is opening their eyes about the importance of and opportunities within this industry."

Hogan reports that as a result of the career day events, teachers have contacted him directly to arrange for special presentations about airport technologies, potential job opportunities, and insight into how students can prepare for the future. Some of the other organizers, such as NAWIC's Babb, would like to see the program begin to target other students, such as elementary age children or students attending nontraditional schools for troubled youth, where many students could benefit from the direction that a career in the construction industry could provide.

The program's original goal was simple: "To place the diversity of opportunities available in construction on students' career maps." With the clear success of the program, Construction Career Days has not only affected many students, but also it has spread clear across the U.S. map, influencing thousands of teachers, students, and industry members nationwide.



Keri A. Funderburg is a contributing editor for Public Roads.

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