OP-Ed: A future workforce: OSU program leads by example

DJC300This column originally appeared in The Daily Journal of Commerce in Buildings Bridges and Roads
By: Mike Salsgiver

Mike SalsgiverAcross the state, students in elementary schools and high schools have already begun classes, but later next week, classes in Oregon State University’s Construction Engineering Management (CEM) program will begin. Campus is already bustling with new students, welcome activities, and of course, Beaver football.

Across the United States, the reality of the education system is that 50 percent of high school students go to college, but only half of those students earn a degree. The CEM program at OSU far outpaces that statistic with 2015 preliminary statistics reporting a nearly 90 percent graduation rate. What is the program’s secret? How can the industry tap into those driven and highly educated members of our future workforce?

From an industry perspective, the recognition of the construction industry as a path to a well-paying job and career is a critical step toward meeting our future workforce needs—OSU understands that. For CEM students, the fall 2015 term will offer a wealth of opportunities. More than 30 construction companies are already on the calendar to participate in AGC Student Chapter Speaker Meetings as well as campus interviews. Additionally, the School of Civil and Construction Engineering (CCE) will host a variety of recruitment and alumni outreach events including a newly launched lecture series, career fairs, and industry networking events.

The newly launched OSU CCE Distinguished Lecture Series will debut with a presentation of “Great Builders” by Raymond “Paul” Giroux. Giroux is a veteran builder and award-winning civil engineer historian who will share his unique perspective on the great projects of our time such as the Brooklyn Bridge, the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Panama Canal. This event is just one of the examples of the emphasis placed on the engagement of the industry with eager students. When companies and industry experts engage with interested students, magic happens, relationships form and career paths are determined.

Also new to the program this year, CEM juniors will have the occasion to visit three different job sites on a field trip to the Portland area and will complete exercises in resume writing. Additionally, CEM students will have opportunities to network with potential employers in both formal and informal atmospheres. OSU CCE will host the CCE Career Fair Reception on Oct. 22, and the OSU fall and winter Engineering Career Fairs will be held Oct. 22 and Feb. 25, 2016, respectively.

In OSU’s 2015 CEM program graduating class, 73 percent of students had completed at least one industry-related internship, according to preliminary statistics. More than 90 percent of students had at least one full-time job offer prior to graduation. The market segments these students will enter include marine contracting, residential contracting, mechanical contracting, heavy civil contracting, and commercial contracting. The average base salary of those CEM students directly following graduation was $59,162, well above Oregon’s average salary for private sector employees.

What these data points demonstrate is that by connecting with viable employers via internships and mentorships during school, students are more encouraged and better positioned to enter the industry and earn family-wage jobs. The academic level of the CEM program’s curriculum, partnered with membership in the AGC student chapter and the engagement of the industry as a whole, has repeatedly proven to better prepare students for a wide range of post-graduate options, including direct entry into the workforce, post-graduate degrees, or military service.

OSU has even recently trademarked the term “Oregon State Engineer” based on the success of its industry-driven program. The College of Engineering trains a unique class of engineers who acquire a strong technical foundation coupled with well-developed leadership skills and a broad worldview. They attain a breadth of knowledge in engineering fundamentals and a depth of technical expertise in a chosen discipline. They learn the value of and gain practice in clear communication and collaborative working processes. They become locally conscious, globally aware leaders who think critically and question assumptions. When they graduate, they join a community of high achievers whose collective efforts solve seemingly intractable problems, strengthen individuals and communities, and contribute to a better world. That sounds like the type of individual contractors should want to hire.

Today, nearly 60 percent of construction firms report having some difficulty finding enough skilled workers to fill key professional and craft positions. We as contractors know that quality, comprehensive craft training is fundamental to the development of a skilled workforce. In turn, a skilled workforce is essential to a productive and sustainable construction industry in our state and across the country. If we can find it within our companies and our industry to push for more involvement in student-level construction programs, the potential of our impact is immense.

The construction industry has been traditionally viewed as low tech and, therefore, is unappealing to the tech-savvy, younger demographic. This, however, is not the reality of today’s construction industry, and OSU’s CEM Program is a stunning example of that fact. From high-tech tools to more elaborate building processes and materials, the engineers, craft professionals, and supervisors of the new construction workforce must be more than just computer literate; they must be computer proficient and technologically competent.

If we are not there demonstrating the uniqueness of these tools or discussing the “new wave” of the industry with students, how will they know? The future success of our industry relies on our ability as current industry members to work with students, to inspire their imaginations with the amount of potential that comes with working in the field of construction. If they are engaged, these students will far surpass our own abilities in the very short term.

Our commitment—and the industry’s commitment—to quality construction education is absolutely essential to the successful development of our future workforce. OSU is producing a unique class of engineers who possess a strong technical foundation coupled with well-developed leadership skills and a broad worldview. The mentorship opportunities AGC student chapters provide, and the exposure to a number of post-graduation paths that they offer, are central building blocks to ensuring high-quality construction in our state.

To view the column online, please click here (DJC subscription required).

Mike Salsgiver is executive director of the Associated General Contractors Oregon-Columbia Chapter. Contact him at 503-685-8305 or mikes@agc-oregon.org.

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