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ODOT Region 5 Hosts Construction/Utilities Education Day
ODOT News
Students gather
The back lot of the ODOT Region 5 complex in La Grande is fairly quite now, with occasional trucks and other maintenance equipment moving about as needed. This is a far cry, however, from the sights and sounds that filled the area on April 6 when ODOT hosted the first Construction/Utilities Education Day for eastern Oregon high school seniors and juniors.
 
On that busy day, over 200 students from all parts of eastern Oregon came to the Region 5 headquarters to participate in an educational event that exposed young minds and eager hands to a variety of construction related activities. Guiding them along the way were over two dozen representatives from area contractors, local colleges, employment offices and of course, ODOT. Many brought equipment and supplies that the students were encouraged to operate or use in hands-on demonstrations that ranged from swinging a hammer and mixing concrete, to operating an excavator. 
 
“This is about helping to grow the work forces and give these kids an appreciation for what the construction industry is like,” said ODOT Region 5 Manager Monte Grove, who provided opening remarks at the beginning of the day. “Hopefully, some of them will learn from today and actually move forward into careers in the construction trades.”
 
“We want to give kids working-world experience they do not get in schools because of funding cuts,’’ added key speaker Paul Joiner of the state Bureau of Labor and Industries.
 
Joiner said events like this are needed to head off a projected shortage in skilled construction and utilities workers in the future. Joiner explained that a high percentage of construction and utilities workers will be retiring in the next five years. Many who are high school students today will be needed to fill the void the retirements will create.
 
Some traveled over 200 miles one-way to attend
Although activities didn’t start until 9 a.m., kids from as far away as Burns were boarding a bus at sun up to take the 205 mile, three-and-a-half-hour-long journey across Harney, Grant, Baker and Union counties to arrive on time. A total of 22 high schools from seven eastern Oregon counties participated, with nearly half of them traveling more than 100 miles one way.
 
As each of the buses unloaded in front of the La Grande striping building, the students were greeted with a smile and given a pair of safety glasses, event literature and a red, green, yellow or blue hard hat. The brightly colored head gear helped event chaperones and guides keep the kids properly grouped for the day’s activities.
 
“Having the students broken into groups with different colored hard hats was key in keeping everyone organized throughout the day,” said ODOT Region 5 Office of Civil Rights Specialist Henry Manjarres, who helped coordinate the event.
 
Kids are broken into four activities clusters
Following brief opening remarks and a few safety reminders the kids separated into four groups based on hat color, with each headed to a specific cluster of activities strategically located across the ODOT compound. The blue group spent their first 40 minutes at the Hands-On venue located on the south side of the striping yard. Local contractors taught the students how to mix and pour concrete, construct a small building, identify and use different types of house paint, and other construction related activities. City and county maintenance crews also showed them how to check fire hydrants and inspect sewer lines using the latest remote camera equipment.
 
At the same time, another group of students wearing red hats were visiting the Exhibitors venue inside one of the striping bays. At this location, the group learned from various company representatives, trade specialists and utility contractors about bridge construction, maintaining natural gas lines and what safety gear is needed for working on a 300-foot tall wind turbine. Plumbing and wiring contractors also ran hands on demonstrations, awarding prizes to the fastest participant, while local college advisors and Oregon Employment staff shared information about apprenticeship programs and what advanced education might be required in today’s construction industries.
 
Venue number three, titled Heavy Equipment, gave the green helmeted group an up close encounter with the work horses of the construction biz. Kids watched demonstrations of graders, loaders, a compression roller, asphalt paving machines and ODOT’s high tech striping truck. They were also treated to a twenty minute tour of ODOT La Grande’s Equipment Shop fabrication and maintenance departments. Here they learned how the agency turns raw stock materials into finished snow plows and what is involved in maintaining the ODOT’s fleet of big rigs.
 
ODOT Maintenance made up the fourth group of construction activities and included overviews of the sign shop, geology, survey, highway maintenance and bridge maintenance. Inside the sign shop, yellow helmeted students learned about the latest GPS based survey equipment and why a simple rock hammer is still the geologist’s best friend. Outside, kids heard about setting up safe work zones then climbed inside the cabs and operated the controls of a bull dozer and excavator. A big hit at the ODOT maintenance venue was the hands-on demonstration of the La Grande bridge crew’s remote controlled culvert cleaner. Nimble fingers and hands raised on video game controllers quickly learned how to maneuver the four-foot tall remote controlled bucket scoop machine as it picked up and dumped loads of gravel.   
 
Throughout the day the blue, red, green and yellow groups spent about 40 minutes at each of the four venues, taking a mid-day break with contractors for BBQ pork sandwiches and all the trimmings. By two p.m. all 210 students had made the rounds to each of the activities where many received their very first exposure to the construction trades.
 
Students, teachers, contractors label the event a bid success
“I thought it was cool,” said Nick Ramsey from La Grande High School. “They had a lot of equipment out here, a lot of cool stuff to teach us. I learned a lot about heavy equipment, painting, pouring concrete, building sheds, all that stuff. All around, it was a good day and I’m very glad I came.”
 
Greg Martinez and Bryan Ibarra, who traveled over an hour from Echo High School, said they were happy they came and appreciated the opportunity to learn about the construction trades.
 
“It was pretty interesting,” said Martinez. “I got to see and handle a lot of stuff that I didn’t know about.”
 
Ibarra said, “A lot of the guys taught me about things I didn’t know existed. It was pretty educational.”
 
Tim Nguyen of Hampton Paving who supervised students operating an excavator said, “It was fun to see their reactions. Some were pretty stunned. They were totally amazed.’’
 
Marcus Mitchell, a La Grande High School senior, was among those who operated the excavator. He found the experience fascinating after a cautious start.
 
“It was a little intimidating at first,’’ Mitchell said.
 
“Today was a really great experience,” said Salina Hefner from Union High School. She was one of the students who got inside and operated the dozer and other heavy machinery. “We learned everything from painting lines on roads and laying asphalt, all the way to the new technologies on how to make machines and equipment. I’m really happy I came. I learned a lot of new things.”
 
Overall, Construction/Utilities Education Day was labeled a huge success with numerous schools expressing their gratitude and contractors saying they felt it was well worth their time and effort.
 
“Everyone said they really thought it went well, even though we had a bit of a snow storm during part of the day,” Manjarres said. “It was truly a team effort to get everything organized, especially since it was the first time anything like this had ever been put together here in eastern Oregon.”
 
Other members of the event coordination team included Lynn Trice and her staff at the Oregon Training and Employment Consortium (TEC) in La Grande, and Superintendent Larry Glaze and his staff at the La Grande School District. Funding came in the form of numerous donations of time and materials, plus a grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) managed by TEC to help pay for school travel costs, hard hats, safety glasses, tents, tables, chairs and the mid-day meal.
 
“The logistics of this have just been fabulous,” said Teri Berry of Work Source Oregon Employment Department. “There are a lot of vendors here who have exciting information regarding career opportunities in the construction industry.”
 
Soon after the day was over, emails and letters started coming in from the various schools who participated. Nearly all listed glowing remarks about the educational opportunities provided and expressed interest in being involved in future, similar event. Comments on how to improve the experience were also solicited.
 
“I was amazed how well everything went and all the positive comments we received from the schools, contractors, vendors and especially the students,” said ODOT Region 5 Public Information Officer Tom Strandberg who helped coordinate activities at the ODOT complex. “We are already in the process of planning another event for 2012.”