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Preparing for an upswing in transportation

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Students in the STRIPE pre-apprenticeship program at American River College learn about career options in transportation.

Community college leaders are hopeful that a healthy job outlook in the transportation infrastructure industry will provide a boost for training programs targeting that sector.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there is a positive outlook for transportation jobs in such areas as civil and environmental engineering, project management, intelligent transportation systems and heavy equipment operators.

Job growth in the transportation, distribution and logistics sector is expected to increase 4.5 percent by 2016, while employment is expected to increase by 24 percent for civil engineers and 31 percent for environmental engineers according to BLS.

Congress' inability to reauthorize a major transportation law, however, could be a setback for many large highway and rail projects. The Senate approved a multiyear $109-billion surface transportation bill last month, but similar legislation has stalled in the House.

Geared up before the crash

In California, American River College (ARC) geared up for expanded workforce training in anticipation of road, bridge, mass transit and other projects across the state when a $50-million transportation bond was passed in 2007.

“We saw the infrastructure as a way to repair the highway system not only to promote commerce and the transport of goods, but also as an opportunity to put people back to work,” said Cris McCullough, ARC’s associate vice president of workforce development.

Poised for growth in trucking, logisticsThe college planned to "transform the workforce” by forging industry partnerships with large companies, associated general contractors and the California transportation and energy departments, McCullough said. Even a shortage of skilled workers didn't stymie the effort; ARC received a multiyear state grant in 2007 to create an eight-week, pre-apprenticeship program called Project STRIPE (Sacramento Transportation Regional Infrastructure Partnerships in Education).

But then something did bring things to a halt: “The economy tanked,” McCullough said. Many of the projects were put on the back burner. Federal money from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act didn’t have much of an impact on rebuilding the state’s infrastructure either.

After four years, things are starting to move a bit, McCullough said. Many of the highway projects targeted in the bond are shovel-ready and just emerging now, but not at the level anticipated in 2007.  

Still, some high-profile projects are drawing interest. The viability of a proposed high-speed “bullet train” to eventually connect Los Angeles and San Francisco could be decided within the next six months. If it does go forward, it would be a “huge economic boom for California’s central valley, which has a very high unemployment rate,” and many of the people working on it might start their training with Project STRIPE, ​McCullough said.

The program provides a basic understanding of safety issues and the tools and materials used for building roads, bridges, levees, rail and related projects, while giving students an opportunity to explore 13 different infrastructure apprentice programs before committing to a career path. About 100 students go through the program every year; about 20 percent of them are women.

Those who complete the two-semester STRIPE course can enter any of the five apprenticeship programs offered at ARC—carpenter, drywall/lathing, electrical, ironworker and sheet metal worker—or another apprenticeship program offered elsewhere in the community, said Project STRIPE coordinator Mary Wall. They can also apply the 16 credits they’ve earn toward an associate degree.

An apprenticeship program takes two to five years to complete, depending on the job, and requires 140 hours of classroom instruction a year. These trades generally pay well, but it’s hard work, and many people drop out, McCullough said. Those who complete STRIPE have a better idea of the demands of the job.

Potential in civil engineering

In Nevada, Truckee Meadows Community College (TMCC) used a three-year Advanced Technological Education (ATE) grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a civil engineering practitioner program focusing on projects to restore the nation’s decaying infrastructure.

Students in TMCC's engineering technician program are being trained to work for engineering design professionals, carrying out the more detailed work in designing highways, bridges, dams and other major public works projects, said Ted Plaggemeyer, dean of sciences at TMCC. The courses cover surveying, graphic techniques for producing engineering documents, field and lab testing and related skills.

About 10 students in the two-year program, now in its second year, are working toward an associate degree in applied science. The ATE grant covers their tuition. 

Starting a program like this just when the economy slowed down was unfortunate, Plaggemeyer said.

“A lot of civil engineering companies in the area have been laying off people. We’ve really been hit hard here,” he said, but “the concept is still good.”

There are several highway projects in the area that have been funded with federal stimulus money and have been completed or are shovel-ready. Plaggemeyer hopes that design work will begin soon on new projects.

One transportation-related area poised for growth and offering new opportunities for community colleges deals with the emerging “intelligent infrastructure system.”

Gary Mullett, co-chair of the electronics department at Springfield Technical Community College in Massachusetts, is using a $508,000 ATE grant to develop a curriculum on networked electronic systems related to transportation and the “smart grid” power system. 

So far, two courses have been developed for automotive students on “data acquisition and sensors” and “sensor networks.”

The kinds of electronic systems Mullett plans to address include sensors embedded into roads and bridges that can monitor traffic data and direct drivers to less-congested routes, sensors that monitor the structural condition of bridges and other network systems to better control traffic flow and improve highway safety. Similar systems are being developed for mass transit.

“All of this is going to happen. The question is when,” Mullett said. “The demand is still not there yet for people with these new skills.”

While components of the intelligent transportation system are being designed by engineers with advanced degrees, there will be a need for community college-educated electronic technicians to evaluate the systems, determine problems and replace the faulty software, he said.

Smart highways are just beginning to take hold, said Mullett, noting that fiber optic cables have been embedded into Route 91, which sends data to the Massachusetts Transportation Department. Now, the system is mainly used to control electronic signs that warn drivers about conditions like fog or heavy traffic.

In the near future, though, these systems can be used to automatically change the direction of lanes or slow cars down to manage traffic flow during periods to prevent gridlock or to reroute cars around an accident, Mullett said.

By the end of the decade, “some people believe cars will be able to talk to one another and form little ad hoc networks," he said. “That might be a little optimistic.”

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