Efforts to spark interest in engineering, construction careers intensify

Traffic is constricted by lane closures related to Project Neon, a nearly $1 billion, 4-mile-long widening of Interstate 15 from the U.S. 95 interchange to Sahara Avenue on Tuesday, March 21, 2017.

Those dreaded orange traffic cones signaling roadway and infrastructure projects are the bane of Southern Nevada motorists. But for Angela Castro, the ubiquitous signs of traffic delays represent jobs, economic development and an investment in the long-term health of the valley.

“Each orange cone represents a job, and every job represents growth and progress,” said Castro, senior director of government affairs, media and marketing for the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada.

“The extension of fuel revenue indexing, thanks to the passage of Question 5 last November, is expected to infuse up to $3 billion in roadway-infrastructure projects over the next 10 years, and these projects translate into jobs in the construction, engineering and design fields,” Castro said. “The RTC administers the fuel revenue indexing funds, so we’re committed to attracting a workforce in these kinds of fields.”

To that end, the RTC and its public- and private-sector community partners recently hosted a job fair at Texas Station to spotlight infrastructure-industry professions. “Careers in Motion” allowed attendees to meet with representatives from government agencies, higher education, apprenticeship programs and workforce organizations to learn about training opportunities and how to pursue careers in construction, engineering and design in support of roadway projects.

The event coincided with National Infrastructure Week, an education and advocacy effort to address the nation’s deteriorating roads, bridges, rail, ports, airports and water and sewer systems. Businesses, workers and elected officials used the week to promote investment in projects, technologies and policies that improve public safety, stimulate job growth and spark development.

“For the Careers in Motion event, we worked with our community partners to bring all of these resources together in one pavilion in a hands-on expo, and to really explain from beginning to end what’s required to work in the infrastructure industry,” Castro said.

In many cases, this includes extensive training, according to Marvin Gebers, secretary-treasurer of Southern Nevada Union Apprenticeship Programs, a consortium of 17 programs related to the local building and construction trades.

“Apprenticeships range from two to five years and include a classroom component as well as on-the-job learning requirements,” said Gebers, who also is director of training for the local plasterers and cement masons union. “We’re always looking for ways to do outreach, and probably attend 50 to 60 events per year.”

This includes participating in job fairs at local high schools and even middle schools to encourage students to consider the building and construction trades as a profession.

“Schools used to offer woodshop classes, but those days are gone because of lack of funding, so the trades often get left out of the equation,” Gebers said. “When those shop programs disappeared, we started noticing (dwindling numbers) in our apprenticeship programs because students were not exposed to the trades in high school. Now, we try to attend as many functions as possible to spread the word that the trades are a viable alternative to college or the military.”

College of Southern Nevada and UNLV’s College of Engineering had a presence at Careers in Motion, along with the Latin Chamber of Commerce and the Urban Chamber of Commerce.

“I like the fact that Careers in Motion focused not just on the labor side of the workforce, but also had the skilled trades represented plus apprenticeship programs and professions such as engineering,” said Ken Evans, president of the Las Vegas Urban Chamber of Commerce. “The people who planned it made sure there was something for everybody, regardless of their background.”

“The industry is fairly robust now,” Evans said.” But when we had the economic downturn, quite a bit of our talent left the state. So in some areas, the challenge is to build it back up again.”

The nonprofit Foundation for an Independent Tomorrow had a presence at Careers in Motion, which was a good way for the organization to get its name out in the community, program director Jennifer Casey said.

“Our mission statement is to provide vocational training, job training, education and support, so it was a great opportunity to meet some of the other service providers and potential clients,” Casey said.

A number of professional firms also had a presence, including Poggemeyer Design Group, KME Architects, E&M Enterprises, Thor Construction, Love Engineering and Kiewit Corp.

Kiewit Infrastructure West Co. — a subsidiary of Kiewit Corp. — is the design-build contractor for Project Neon, the largest and most expensive public works project in Nevada history. The nearly $1 billion, 3.7-mile-long widening of Interstate 15 from the Spaghetti Bowl to Sahara Avenue will help to meet the region’s growing infrastructure needs while generating thousands of jobs to stimulate the economy. Kiewit also built the original Spaghetti Bowl interchange, which was completed in 1968.

“We felt it was important to participate in the Careers in Motion event to demonstrate our commitment to the community’s long-term welfare and prosperity,” said Jay Proskovec, public information officer for Kiewit Corp.

“We try to attend one type of event per month, whether it’s something like Careers in Motion or partnering with Boys Town or the Girl Scouts to talk about engineering careers,” Proskovec said. “Careers in Motion and Infrastructure Week really do help bring awareness of our company and the projects we’re building, and also of projects that are coming down the pipeline.”

Tony Illia, public information officer for the Nevada Department of Transportation, said finding skilled, experienced help was a challenge felt across the building industry, particularly in engineering.

“Many students are leery of the profession’s math and science requirements as well as incurring college debt, (while) others are shying away from construction boom-bust cycles for greater vocational stability,” said Illia, adding that NDOT had been kept on track by contracting with the private sector.

“We also routinely hire UNR and UNLV graduates, and have provided hundreds of college students the opportunity to gain practical work experience with summer internships in construction, surveying, materials testing, roadway and structural design, hydraulics, environmental, planning, traffic, maintenance, and operations and research,” Illia said.

NDOT also participates in school and college career fairs and job-shadowing programs, Illia said.

He said National Infrastructure Week and its associated events had shone a light on America’s crumbling, inefficient and inadequately designed infrastructure while informing stakeholders and policymakers about infrastructure’s importance to economic competitiveness, security, job creation and quality of life.

“National Infrastructure Week is vital for encouraging private- and public-sector projects, policies and technologies that put America back in the fast lane,” he said.