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Sunday, 24 May 2015 22:00

With (eventual) infrastructure funding comes need to train, certify workforce

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The Michigan Department of Transportation requires workers involved in infrastructure projects to be certified. That’s led many engineering and construction firms to focus on training and certifying their workforces ahead of an expected wave of road funding. That way, they’ll be ready to get to work quickly when the projects eventually happen. The Michigan Department of Transportation requires workers involved in infrastructure projects to be certified. That’s led many engineering and construction firms to focus on training and certifying their workforces ahead of an expected wave of road funding. That way, they’ll be ready to get to work quickly when the projects eventually happen. COURTESY PHOTO: MICHIGAN DEPT. OF TRANSPORTATION

Engineering and construction firms must prepare now to be able to handle the amount of work coming at some point in the future to repair Michigan’s crumbling roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

Although the timing of those projects remains uncertain as long-term funding for infrastructure improvements meanders through the political process in Lansing, industry executives and educators fully expect the state will decide to invest in those projects.

Meanwhile, companies that hope to work on those infrastructure improvements need to ensure their workforce has the necessary skills and certifications now so they’re ready to get to work when the funding does eventually get authorized.

“Over the last several years, (local municipalities especially) have cut back on doing big projects,” said Paul Galdes, vice president of operations at Grand Rapids-based Fleis & Vandenbrink Engineering Inc. “There have been a lot of band-aid projects — just filling potholes rather than replacing streets. There is a pent-up demand for road and construction work. We see it as something that will eventually happen.”

To prepare for that day, engineering firms like Fleis & Vandenbrink as well as general contractors in West Michigan have started to ensure employees are properly trained and certified to the standards mandated by the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT).

To assist its industry partners, MDOT created a program called Construction Quality Partnership (CQP). The partnerships work with a number of higher educational institutions in the state, including Ferris State University in Big Rapids.

CQP has multiple programs, said John Richard, an MDOT spokesperson based in Grand Rapids. For quality assurance and quality control purposes when dealing with the state’s infrastructure, MDOT included topics such as bridge maintenance, road preservation and the mixing of hot asphalt, Richard told MiBiz in an email.

About 99 percent of enrollees in FSU’s Institute for Construction Education and Training program are training and certifying for MDOT projects, said Suzanne Miller, the university’s coordinator for the construction technology and management program.

“We’ve introduced two new programs and doubled the enrollment, actually,” Miller said. “Certifications run out after a certain number of years and they have to be renewed. It’s not like once you have the certification you’re done. Part of that is because specifications and items do change. (MDOT) has been working very hard on keeping the industry up with what they need to know.”

FSU launched a pair of new programs in 2013 to keep up with MDOT mandates. They include two levels of aggregate inspection training and certification.

Additionally, most certifications need to be updated every two years, sources said.

A NEED FOR ENGINEERS

The timing of funding for major road and infrastructure projects in Michigan remains a mystery, but stakeholders continue to express concern over a lack of skilled engineers.

Galdes of Fleis & Vandenbrink said the lack of engineers is “the real issue” for his company.

Ron Brenke, executive director of Lansing-based industry association American Council of Engineering Companies of Michigan (ACEC), said that’s a concern he hears quite often from member companies.

“If we were to get a long-term increase (for road funding), people will come to Michigan,” Brenke said, noting that many engineers and laborers left the state in the wake of the recession. “They have family here and they want to come back.

No one will invest until there is a long-term funding solution. We have three or four excellent universities for engineers, but they are leaving the state.”

For those who are still here and working in the field, ACEC attempts to offer a number of different training options for industry professionals. Each year, the association co-hosts a conference with MDOT where attendees get one hour of continuing education credits. On a monthly basis, ACEC also attempts to provide some sort of technical training for those in the engineering field, Brenke said.

“We make a concerted effort to offer that because they all need it,” he said.

TECHNOLOGY TRAINING

Also at issue for MDOT contractors is the ongoing proliferation of technology in road and infrastructure repairs and construction. Sources pointed to the heightened use of three-dimensional modeling software at the same time major renovation projects are going totally paperless. That included last year’s major I-96 renovation around metropolitan Detroit.

“I think continuing education is just something we have to do to keep up with technology,” Brenke said. “I think everyone realizes that they have to invest.”

That’s been at the heart of the strategy for Fleis & Vandenbrink, Galdes said. In any given year, MDOT work makes up 7 percent to 10 percent of the company’s workload, but the company must make the needed investment up front to ensure its workers are properly prepared.

“The process is expensive but we have made investments to keep folks trained,” Galdes said. “But it’s better to keep them trained than to start over again. We just don’t feel we have enough staff for what’s coming.”

 

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