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The Journal Gazette

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Friday, June 14, 2019 1:00 am

Editorial

Concrete option

City, FWCS alliance paves way for trade workers

Saving on public infrastructure costs. Job training. Planning for the future. A decade ago, an overworked city department and a young teacher's career-training program joined to meet those needs.

City Utilities was looking for a way to cope with a tsunami of concrete-restora-tion work, as well as to create a “pipeline” of future employees.

As many of its water mains began aging out, the city was trying to repair hundreds of breaks, Director Kumar Menon recalled. “We were struggling because our staff didn't have enough time to do all the repairs, restoring the concrete sidewalks to their original condition,” he said, and contracting the work out was too expensive.

It also was apparent that the department would soon be facing a shortage of skilled employees. “From 2008 to 2028, we anticipate losing about 3,000 years of experience to retirement,” Menon said in an interview last week.

About the same time, Chris Roberts, a construction trades instructor at the Fort Wayne Community Schools Career Academy, was looking for a way to get promising high school juniors to return for their senior year rather than quitting to look for a job. “We wanted to keep them engaged, keep them interested in the program,” he said. And as a teacher, Roberts recalled, he was in need of a summer job himself.

In 2009, City Utilities and the career academy forged a joint plan that addressed both Menon's and Roberts' concerns. City Utilities would hire some of the construction-trades students to repair sidewalks after water-main breaks were fixed. The students would be paid to learn concrete-finishing skills that could eventually translate into good-paying, full-time jobs.

There were four students that summer. “We started with one pickup truck – my own – and a junky trailer, also mine,” Roberts said. “We've come a long ways in 10 years, that's for sure.”

Now the students have access to four pickup trucks, two dump trucks, a Bobcat skid-loader and all manner of concrete-finishing tools.

Sixty-eight students have gone through the program, doing almost 3,000 jobs for the city, Roberts said. They've learned how to repair sidewalks, street sections, curbs, park strips and driveways. Mentored by both Roberts and City Utilities supervisors, they've also learned the soft skills employees need to hold a full-time a job in construction.

Landing such a position doesn't seem to have been a problem. “We have 100% placement from our program,” Roberts said. “It's been so easy.” When Roberts recently began contacting former participants for a reunion to celebrate the program's first decade, he discovered that though some of those trained in concrete skills had branched into other specialties, about 60 of the students were still working in some kind of construction-related job. Six or seven were running their own companies, he said.

“These folks really wanted to learn,” Menon said. “They had a great work ethic. ... The work product was really, really good – it rivaled what our contractors could have done in the field at a far greater cost.”

With continued infrastructure-repair needs, mega-efforts such as the Riverfront Project, and private construction, there is still more work than there are trained people to do it. City Utilities, which also has a successful college internship program, remains committed to working with Roberts, who last month was named FWCS teacher of the year.

There's little doubt the success of the concrete-finishing program played into the school system's choice. Roberts, Menon said, “has been phenomenal.”

It's the kind of pragmatic partnership other agencies and educational entities here and elsewhere might be able to form.

One caveat: Though it would seem to be a classic example of Indiana's workforce-development ethic, such an alliance does not qualify for state funds, according to Menon.

“Municipalities are not allowed to participate in that program,” he said. “If we had access to that kind of funding, imagine what we could do.”