The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), which boasts more than 4,700 employees, is not immune to dynamic workforce changes. Seasoned employees are retiring, thus setting the stage for a potential personnel shortfall. To meet its employment needs, ODOT created a variety of programs designed to find, train, and employ skilled workers who have what it takes to handle today’s fast-paced highway construction and maintenance demands.
There are several key initiatives backed by ODOT. They support the philosophy that industry professionals in any role can positively impact infrastructure development.
Opportunities for College Grads
For students graduating with an accredited college degree, ODOT offers the Graduate Engineering Program (GEP), which is designed for entry-level professionals looking to “test the engineering waters,” so to speak. Those accepted into the program work alongside experienced engineers, which presents invaluable mentorship opportunities, and rotate through three or four engineering disciplines. Each rotation lasts approximately six months, enabling participants to gain knowledge and experience that help to inform future career decisions.
“The Graduate Engineering Program has been alive and well for over 35 years now, though it’s not just for engineers anymore. Individuals majoring in areas such as science, environmental studies or business can also apply,” says Joe Squire, PE, ODOT State Construction and Materials Engineer.
Historically the GEP accepts 20 to 24 individuals each year, but this year state officials are considering admitting up to 35 participants because of increases in transportation demand, as well as the complexity of constructing modern transportation facilities.
This competitive program has jumpstarted the careers of many prestigious or long-time ODOT employees, including Paul Mather, an Oregon State University graduate who recently retired as Administrator of ODOT’s Highway Division. Squire adds, “We’re always looking for a permanent position for [GEP participants] to transition into, with a special focus on matching up job placements with their career interests and geographic preferences.”
Sometimes a GEP participant will gain one to two years of practical experience and then leave to work for one of ODOT’s design and construction consultants. ODOT views this type of career transition very positively, acknowledging how these budding professionals are transferring to other areas of the industry also in critical need of skilled workers. “We train these individuals well no matter where they decide to go, as it helps out all of Oregon as well as our construction and engineering consultant community,” Squire emphasizes.
Internships Offer Practical Understanding
ODOT also offers an internship program for individuals who are currently enrolled in or recently graduated from college. Both undergrads and graduate-level candidates are considered for the College Internship Program (CIP), a three to six-month program that exposes individuals to a variety of fields in the construction industry. The CIP offers paid work experiences based on the job being performed as well as mentorship opportunities and, of course, practical experience as an ODOT employee.
Individuals majoring in business, science or geographic information systems often gravitate toward these ODOT internships. “We also attract a lot of engineering students, primarily civil engineering, construction engineering and construction management students,” Squire says. He further explains that these individuals come from colleges not just in Oregon, but also from higher education institutions across the U.S.
Training and Certifications for Quality Assurance Personnel
You don’t have to work at ODOT to benefit from its professional development offerings. The organization, often in coordination with industry partners, sponsors a plethora of training and certification programs geared toward roadway construction technicians and inspectors.
These programs attracts a variety of individuals with diverse educational, work and life experiences, offering an alternate pathway to viable, rewarding careers. “We work to promote the advantages of being a tradesman, looking beyond the college graduate work pool to identify capable individuals who are willing to work hard and learn new skills,” says Larry Ilg, PE, ODOT Quality Assurance Engineer.
An inspector’s role in quality assurance assessments is critical because this process ensures contractors deliver projects that meet ODOT’s specifications. Likewise, technicians are crucial to the construction process because they test and make adjustments to the materials being used.
According to Squire, the 1990s were a time of transition for ODOT. Like other DOTs around the nation, during this time ODOT shifted from handling all quality control and quality assurance procedures to overseeing just the quality assurance components. Since then, state agencies have relied heavily on contractors to execute quality control processes.
In addition to offering a general inspector certification, ODOT has discipline-specific certifications pertaining to bridge, environmental, drilled shaft, asphalt concrete pavement, and traffic signal inspections. These inspector certifications are valid for three to five years, depending on the certification, and the average cost per year ranges from $125 to $275.
One of ODOT’s most noteworthy certification programs is its technician Inspection Quality Assurance Program, which promotes industry best practices on quality control/quality assurance measures. This particular program is vital for many reasons: it ensures consistent construction inspection administration; it promotes effective documentation practices to reduce the likelihood of construction claims and contract disparities; and it defines inspectors’ roles and responsibilities concerning construction workmanship, materials and testing. These technician certifications are valid for three to five years, depending on the certification, and the cost averages about $1,500 per certification.
When it comes to training and certifying technicians, ODOT has a unique education model comprised of classroom instruction as well as very rigorous hands-on testing procedures. The average pass rate is in the range of 70-75 percent. “We train technicians on how to properly test materials and the appropriate testing procedures to use, as well as how to interpret test results and provide recommendations on improving materials,” Ilg says.
He continues, “All courses can be applied toward licensed engineer professional development hours (PDHs). ODOT offers the lowest cost avenue to gain PDH credits in Oregon.”
A Game-Changing Partnership: ODOT and BOLI
As a whole, ODOT is focused on engaging industry partners in solving transportation problems and planning for the future. One game-changing partnership is between ODOT and the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI), which together built the ODOT-BOLI Highway Construction Workforce Development Program.
Focused on meeting the construction industry’s ever-changing employment needs, this workforce development program aims to increase awareness of highway construction careers. On top of offering training and classes that enhance the workplace culture, this initiative promotes diversity in hiring and increases apprenticeship opportunities. Furthermore, it provides resources for families, like paying for child care and travel costs, to reduce or remove barriers for those desiring opportunities pursue construction-related careers. From career exploration activities to pre-apprenticeship programs to trades-intensive classes and more, this program’s recruitment system is successful on multiple levels because it is complemented by supportive services and initiatives that promote respectful workplaces.
ODOT and BOLI have published a detailed 40-page report with additional insights about this unique workforce development program. It can be accessed online on the ODOT website.
Championing Industry-Wide Collaboration, Cooperation
Squire equates transportation to being the very backbone of a state’s economy, helping to facilitate commerce and keep people thriving. He and Ilg both agree that it takes a high level of collaboration and cooperation to advance initiatives that improve transportation infrastructure – a practice that ODOT champions.
“The Oregon Department of Transportation, contractors and engineering consultants are unified in building a strong, capable construction workforce. Together we become better by sharing concepts, practical applications, failures that we have overcome, and triumphs,” Ilg says.
Squire concurs. “We are better together when all of us – as partners – derive safe, economic solutions for our communities and the traveling public. Our tri-lateral partnership is the foundation upon which our transportation system is built.”
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