Learning while earning

The bridge program paved new ground in its race- and gender-neutral goals for apprentices. In 2005, at the beginning of the pilot, the agency instituted a 5 percent requirement and, in winter 2006, raised it to 10 percent per craft. All ODOT projects with bid openings after Nov. 1, 2007, had a 10 percent apprenticeship goal per craft. Based on projected availability of apprentices, all ODOT projects with bid openings after March 1, 2008, continued this 10 percent goal.

The bridge program didn't just set goals for contractors to achieve; we helped them get there. ODOT extended existing outreach to students enrolled in traditional high schools to include those enrolled in alternative school systems, with an emphasis on recruiting women and minorities. Mentoring programs provided apprentices and on-the-job trainees with support, and the agency partnered with community-based organizations to address the traditionally high dropout rate from apprenticeship training programs, particularly for women and minorities.

In 2007-2008, ODOT worked with the Bureau of Labor and Industries and the Associated General Contractors' Northwest College of Construction to deliver AGC's first-year apprenticeship training program for laborers and carpenters in eastern Oregon.

We also wanted to provide opportunities for aspiring engineers, so the bridge program established summer internships that allowed them to gather valuable design experience totaling more than 22,000 hours. More than 40 people received training, some of whom returned for several summers.

The changing face of the construction workforce

Historically, Oregon has had very few women and minority journey-level trade workers (less than 1 percent as of 2005) and even fewer numbers in heavy-highway trades.

To build a qualified, diverse construction workforce pool, ODOT and industry agreed that aspirational targets for construction projects were achievable. The Workforce Development Program established aspirational targets for workforce diversity at 14 percent for women and minorities throughout the state. Although aspirational diversity targets were not requirements in ODOT contracts and were not binding on the contractor, the agency placed a high value on diversity and was committed to encouraging the highest possible participation of minorities and women in the workforce.

At peak construction in 2012, the bridge program achieved 14 percent participation for minorities and 11 percent for women - a substantial advance over numbers before the bridge program. ODOT was one of just a handful of DOTs in the nation that consistently tracked and reported the participation of minorities and women during both design and construction.

Ready hands in Eastern Oregon

ODOT has a longstanding relationship with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. More than 20 years ago, the agency and the CTUIR signed a memorandum of understanding that on projects within 60 miles of the reservation, 25 percent of the workforce would be made up of workers and contractors certified by the Tribal Employment Rights Office.

In 2004, the bridge program estimated that $200 million in program contracts would fall within the CTUIR's jurisdiction and recognized that the projects represented an excellent opportunity to draw on and build a skilled local workforce.

Results were good: From 2006 to 2009, 40 members of the CTUIR worked a total of approximately 21,000 hours and earned nearly $600,000. In an area where unemployment is high and annual income is approximately $12,000, bridge program wages averaged $16,000 per year; the average hourly wage paid was $28 per hour. Workers gained experience as journey-level carpenters, operating engineers and ironworkers. Family-wage jobs through the summer allowed tribal members to focus on cultural activities in the fall and winter. And skilled workers were well-prepared to take on CTUIR-owned construction projects, such as a $40 million administrative building, school, wellness center and clinic.

The tribe worked with contractors to arrange for more experienced workers to mentor rookies. One popular and successful senior leader was Bennie Minthorn, who worked as an operating engineer for many years on projects all over Oregon until he became the assistant road department manager for the CTUIR. Another strong advocate of the knowledgeable, dependable local workforce was Josh Smith, project manager for Wildish Standard Paving Co., the prime contractor for the repair of six bridges and the replacement of eight on projects from Hermiston to La Grande and from Pendleton to Burns.

In 2006, the CTUIR's TERO was recognized as the Outstanding Program of the Year by the National TERO. The bridge program is grateful to have had the experience and support of such an illustrious partner in workforce development.