Building, maintaining tomorrow’s highway construction workforce

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It takes a strong, capable highway construction workforce to keep the nation’s transportation industry and economy moving forward.

To identify, recruit, train, support and place qualified individuals into needed roles, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) partnered with several organizations to establish the Highway Construction Workforce Partnership (HCWP) through its Strategic Workforce Development initiative. By bringing together highway construction, education and workforce interests at state and local levels, partner working groups form to identify needs and resources to fill industry workforce gaps. HCWPs across the nation have instituted programs proven to sustain a lasting workforce. 

Forming working groups

A critical first step in addressing highway construction workforce shortages is coordinating working groups made up of various community leaders. From holding roundtable meetings to leveraging longtime professional relationships, forming an effective working group often means bringing industry, government, education and business stakeholders together to take action.

Once a working group is established, communication and transparency are key to making progress and keeping stakeholders engaged. In-person and virtual meetings, along with frequent email exchanges and teleconferences are effective ways to keep communication fluid. 

“When it comes to designing a successful program, you’ve got to be on the pulse of what industry is doing.”

David Felton, Alabama HCWP

Recruiting qualified applicants

Each partner’s contribution to outreach and recruitment is crucial for keeping a consistent flow of applicants for highway construction positions. According to Robert Chavez, operations manager for the Los Angeles HCWP, some applicants may not qualify for training or drop out during the process, so having more applications than the number of available positions is important.

“We like to see a 3:1 ratio for our programs,” Chavez said. “To do that, you’ve got to get the information out there. Out of any 10 applicants you get, three may qualify and one may enroll.”

Building relationships with subcontractors and emphasizing the lasting career potential of heavy highway construction trades can help enhance recruiting efforts. 

Coordinating effective training programs

Combining classroom education with on-the-job skills, HCWP training programs may begin with an orientation and assessment to help applicants understand the rigors of highway construction work. According to Andrew Cortes of Rhode Island’s HCWP, it is important to share this information at program start.

“Anyone entering this field needs to know how to be on their feet eight hours a day, work well with others, and be able to follow directions,” Cortes said. 

To adapt to changing workforce needs, HCWPs can expand training programs to focus on specialized skills within the highway construction industry. Offering additional skills training can improve programs and help build a diversified workforce. 

Providing support to launch lasting careers

Regional HCWPs have found that many individuals need additional support to start a career in highway construction. Throughout each training program, HCWPs offer services that can include everything from housing and rental assistance to protective clothing, tools, and transportation to and from training and the job site. Stabilizing an individual at program start can increase their retention throughout training and beyond. 

“By taking care of urgent needs to get people on the right track, you can create a pathway to long-term sustainability.”

Madison Cassels, Denver HCWP

Addressing demand through placement  

Working closely with hiring contractors to confirm how many individuals they intend to hire and tracking program participants to understand where their professional interests and skills align can help enhance placement success. In Denver, industry representatives regularly meet with training program participants to garner interest in needed roles. 

“Having someone give a high-level review of available opportunities is a game-changer,” said Erika Anderson of the Associated General Contractors of Colorado and program director of the Construction Careers Now, a four-week adult pre-apprenticeship program. “It sparks direct conversations about what is needed, plus provides a connection for candidates to get follow-up information.”

Learn more To get information about how you can identify, train and place qualified individuals into highway construction jobs that will help address workforce shortages in your region, visit the Strategic Workforce Development Toolkit or email Clark Martin, HCWP program director.

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Christina Currier is a program manager with the Federal Highway Administration at the U.S. Department of Transportation. Nikki Dugan is a senior copywriter at ICF Next.