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Finding Good Employees and One Company’s Effort to Help

Visit construction contractors anywhere in North America and it'll be mentioned: the pressing need for good employees.

Mon September 22, 2014 - National Edition
Jeff Winke

“I wouldn’t wish any specific thing for any specific person — it’s none of my business. But the idea that a four-year degree is the only path to worthwhile knowledge is insane. It’s insane.”

— Mike Rowe, Host of “Dirty Jobs” and trade careers activist

The need is there. Visit construction contractors anywhere in North America and it’ll be mentioned: the pressing need for good employees.

The best and brightest could do well in the field. The opportunities are challenging. The income can be immense. And growth within the profession is clearly there for the motivated.

Unfortunately, American youth are not told about the various possibilities in the construction market — and in most cases are actively dissuaded from considering anything that has to do with construction. The outdated stereotypes held by parents and school guidance counselors prevail. For many students who are exploring career options, construction is presented as the option of last resort or even a threat. They may be presented with the image of a scrubbed-clean youth in business attire versus a dirty, sweaty worker digging ditches and are told: “Study hard, get a university degree or you’ll end up swinging a pickaxe all day.”

The young in America are still fed the promise that a college degree is the only path to higher earnings and success. Reality is not so certain in today’s post-Great-Recession new world. The average tuition debt load for the class of 2012 was $29,400, according to a report from the Institute for College Access & Success’ Project on Student Debt. At the same time that personal debt has been going up, colleges across the country have been hiking tuition and fees. Meanwhile, families’ incomes have been shrinking and student loan debt has risen at an average rate of six percent per year from 2008 to 2012, the report found.

Recent college grads are finding that their college diplomas no longer function like magic wands that can open doors of opportunity. Instead, they are settling for lower-paying jobs outside their field, while carrying a tuition debt load that easily exceeds their income. In today’s world, it’s best to be nice to the waiter and coffee-shop barista since they are likely to be recent college grads carrying enormous debts, and still living at home with their dreams on hold.

The unfortunate reality is that the intelligence, creative problem solving, communication skills and appreciation for technology attributes that employers allegedly seek in university graduates is exactly what construction companies want.

The diversity of disciplines and evolution of technology in the construction fields do not in any way reflect the stereotype of someone who is not smart enough to do anything but work in construction. The construction field includes those who create 3D digital models of a construction site, operators of technologically advanced million-dollar machines that use GPS control to achieve graded surfaces that are measured in millimeters and workers responsible for accurately mapping the uneven features of a raw construction site using satellite navigation systems, inertial measurement and laser scanning.

Today, the best and brightest are what are needed in construction and contractors are seeking just that.

Understanding the demand for qualified workers in the construction fields, Topcon Positioning Systems Inc., a developer and provider of technologies and products for the survey and construction markets, has developed outreach and partnership programs to help schools and colleges attract more students and to equip them with the latest technology so their students graduate with experience using state-of-the-art products.

The Topcon Educational Partnership Program (EPP) is missioned with helping educational institutions by providing discounted Topcon products for instruction, as well as learning tools to aid in educating the future generations of surveyors, engineers, precision agriculture and construction professionals.

EPP partner schools and colleges are offered:

• Access to the EPP instructor portal on Topcon TotalCare — an online training and customer support site

• Hands-on instructor and classroom training provided by a Topcon product specialist

• Special product discounts for educational institutions

• Direct access to Topcon Technical Support

• Free access to otherwise paid online training services

• Educational rental program that bundles both product and one-on-one training from a Topcon product specialist

• Job postings and internship opportunities through Topcon and its vast dealer network

• Online course material including presentations and videos

Recently, EPP partners were invited to an impressive collection of products, systems, software and technology, showcasing where construction has come and is heading, that is on tour in an interactive demonstration and education traveling solutions center. The Topcon Technology Roadshow is currently on a 24-city tour of North America, spanning a 23,000-mi. circuit. The intent is to bring products and training close to those who can benefit from it.

The 52-ft. long mobile solutions center along with pop-outs and adjunct tents function as the hub for presenting the latest positioning technologies in the construction, surveying and GIS, and architecture/engineering/contractor (AEC) professions.

The new mobile classroom within the customized 18-wheeler trailer seats more than two-dozen visitors and not only allows for centralized demonstrations of the latest Topcon products and technologies, but is designed for interactive training sessions as well.

Trade colleges and university-level technical programs have been invited to participate in the two-day visits at the locations. Counselors, instructors and students have had opportunities to rub shoulders with site surveyors, 3D model builders, earth-movers, and milling and paving contractors who are coming to see the latest technology and solutions to their evolving needs.

“I have 24 students about to graduate from our heavy-duty-equipment technician apprentice program who I asked to join me at the Toronto visit of the Technology Roadshow — 18 made it,” said Tim Allan, an instructor in The School of Transportation at Centennial College, Toronto, Ont. “They loved seeing all the technologies in the display trailer and thoroughly enjoyed the hands-on machine control demonstrations that went on outside in the field. I was happy that they were asking the Topcon people good, challenging technical questions rather than just commenting on the operational.”

Allan learned about the Technology Roadshow from one of his students who read about it in a construction trade magazine. Having access to the latest products and seeing demonstrations of how critical real time data is to the successful completion of construction projects made their attendance worthwhile, Allan said.

Thomas Baden, instructor of heavy equipment operation at the Perry Campus of Hocking College, located in New Lexington, Ohio, was accompanied by two other instructors and 15 of their students when they attended the Columbus Roadshow.

“It was amazing to see the newer technology and how comprehensive the Topcon offering is,” Baden said. “My students — in fact, all of us — are still talking about it.”

Baden said his students were a bit intimidated when they first arrived but the Topcon technical staff quickly made them feel welcome.

“The Roadshow was worth it if only to see how the GPS system controls the machine to achieve grade,” said Baden. “This opened our eyes to how extensive the technology is.”

At the Charlotte Technology Roadshow, Joshua Aldridge, instructor of the heavy equipment operator program at Stanly Community College, located in Albemarle, N.C., attended the event with nine of his students.

“My students were surprised to see all the technology out there and how machines working on a site can be linked to a supervisor on the site and to an off-site office,” Aldridge said. “I didn’t realize how precise the grade control technology has become, and it seems like the cost for a system has come down a bit from a few years ago.”

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