Asphalt Industry Future Depends on Proper Training of New, Young Operators

Contractors need to take the lead in drawing young people to the business.

Eric Morse, Public Relations, Ingersoll Rand

The labor force in the United States is aging. According to the Center to Protect Workers' Rights (CPWR), the average age of the national workforce increased from 37.3 to 39.4 years between 1980 and 2000. During the same period, the median age of the workers increased from 35 to 39 years old.

The construction industry mirrors these numbers. In 2002, the last time the CPWR published a study on the subject, the average age for construction workers was 37.5. Many industry analysts now agree that the average age of construction workers has reached 40.

What does this mean for the asphalt industry? The United States is expected to have an increase in motor vehicle traffic from 2.7 trillion in 2000 to 3.3 trillion in 2010. Truck traffic alone is expected to double by 2020. The industry will need a robust workforce to maintain and build new roads to handle this traffic increase. A younger labor force will need to replace the current one as its members age and retire.

As with any industry or trade, the inexperience of younger workers is the biggest challenge in making them productive. Training is the key to preparing operators of asphalt pavers and compactors for careers that will meet the industry's demands.

"A young person starting in the business should start on the tools," says Peter Fleming, training specialist with the Ingersoll Rand Road Institute, an education center for asphalt paver and compactor operators and mechanics. "Young people should begin on the rakes, lutes, saws, brushes, and shovels so they can see the broader aspects of how asphalt surfaces are constructed."

Fleming places importance on the mentoring of young operators, and says contractors need to take the lead in drawing young people to the business. "I think the industry will have to make working in asphalt more attractive to entice younger workers into the business," says Fleming. "There needs to be a career path for those who want it and are sufficiently intelligent to take it. Young people don't want to think they will be shoveling asphalt for the rest of their lives. If they can see there are career paths and that maybe one day they can become a foreman, supervisor, superintendent, or even a company owner, it may attract them to the industry."

For young people already interested in working in asphalt, Fleming says contractors should gauge what sector of the trade their younger workers are interested in pursuing. "Give them every chance to experience all aspects of paving and compaction and let them take the lead in deciding what they would like to concentrate on," says Fleming. "A great way to begin is to hold a training day and lay asphalt or just sand somewhere on the company premises. Let your younger workers experience as much of the real job as they can, under supervision of course."

In any industry, younger workers will feel nothing but frustration if they haven't been adequately trained for the job they are expected to perform. Fleming says contractors should not hesitate to send their younger workers to the Ingersoll Rand Road Institute. "The Road Institute can provide an excellent base for the right person, male or female, to start his or her career with solid instruction, quality hands-on experiences, and an exchange of information from more experienced students," he says.

When younger paver or compactor operators attends a course at the Ingersoll Rand Road Institute, the training staff gauges the students' level of knowledge and experience with the equipment. "With new operators, we use ice breakers at the beginning of the course to see what their experience is," says Fleming. "If there are experienced operators attending the course, our staff will act as facilitators during discussions and have the seasoned operators share their experiences so that the younger operators can learn from their peers as well as from the instructors.

These discussion times are also beneficial to the seasoned operators, because our staff can polish up what the older operators already know. Sometimes those older operators do things but don't know exactly why they do them. This is an opportunity to kill off some misunderstandings and bad habits that the older students may have picked up along the way."

Refining the skills of experienced operators is important because they will be teaching their younger counterparts after they leave the Road Institute. By sharpening best practices and principles of what those experienced operators do, they will reinforce those concepts with the younger operators when they get back home. And by teaching the younger operators the same paving principles and practices as they are just getting started, they will be more productive and better operators as they progress in their careers.

Fleming says a good deal of time is spent teaching younger operators how to control the operation of material going through the paver to the screed and the operation of the screed itself. "Most young operators need to be taught how to properly control the factors that affect the screed performance, such as how to correctly adjust the screed angle of attack to prevent any over-correction of the mat thickness, how to keep the head of material consistent at the augers, and how to hold a constant paving speed," says Fleming.

Compactors offer another set of techniques young operators need to learn. Our instructors begin with the concepts behind the machines and then move to putting those concepts into practice. "We teach our students the difference between frequency and amplitude of the vibration and discuss a number of rolling patterns they could use. After they have that down, we show them how to steer in a straight line and then position the roller so it is ready to reverse without turning the drums when stationary on the asphalt. Our students learn how to do this by getting in the seat and operating the compactors," says Fleming.

Because of their inexperience, Fleming recommends that contractors send their younger employees to the Road Institute during the winter months to receive training, and on their return, "let your young employees begin working on the equipment under supervision in your company's own workshops, assisting the mechanics and viewing first-hand the components involved in a paver or compactor. Then, as the paving season gets underway, allow your younger employees to join the crew and work with the paver with the objective of eventually making their way to the operator position," says Fleming.

While the winter months might be the best time to train young operators, Fleming says that experienced operators should sharpen their skills no matter what month it is. "Any time is a good time to train seasoned operators, and they can pick up things faster with their experience and background," says Fleming.

While there is no substitute for experience, Fleming says the trend toward electronics on pavers and compactors means contractors should embrace young operators because the younger employees are often more familiar and comfortable with electronics. "Equipment is changing to become more electronic, sophisticated, and more expensive. We need talented people to operate this equipment," says Fleming. "Young people today are ready to except electronics more than older operators. A young operator, who has received quality training, will ensure the machine delivers what it was designed to deliver with ease and without risk of damaging the equipment or the asphalt as it is being laid."

As both the age of the workforce and the demand on the nation's roads increase, younger operators will become a requirement in the asphalt industry. Contractors who begin embracing these younger operators today will be better prepared to meet the demands of the industry in the future. Training is the element that helps create productive and efficient operators out of an inexperienced young person first walking on the job. Contractors who train their young employees at facilities like the Ingersoll Rand Road Institute will gain an edge in an industry that is getting more competitive each day.

The Ingersoll Rand Road Institute is located in Chambersburg, Penn., next to the company's asphalt paver manufacturing facility. The Road Institute has provided professional training on the operation and maintenance of asphalt pavers and compactors for more than 40 years. Ingersoll Rand has also opened Road Institute West, located in Phoenix, Ariz., near Sky Harbor International Airport. Courses at both facilities are two to five days in length and include both classroom instruction and hands-on experience. With the addition of Road Institute West, Ingersoll Rand is the only manufacturer to have dedicated training facilities in eastern and western North America.

"Most companies do not have a formal apprenticeship program," says Fleming. Because the number of paver and compactor operators is not as large as some other occupations in the construction industry, courses on the operation of the equipment are not always offered at trade schools.

Because training for asphalt pavers and compactors can be hard to find, manufacturers have had to step in and provide the training to support the industry. Fleming says that manufacturers who train operators provide a benefit that could not be gained at a trade school. "Here at the Road Institute, our students can call on experts from within Ingersoll Rand to answer any question on our equipment that comes up," says Fleming.

Another benefit of training at the Road Institute is the one-on-one interaction with experienced instructors. Fleming, originally from the United Kingdom, has 33 years of construction equipment experience, 19 of them in paving and teaching others how to pave around the world - from the United States, Europe, Australia, China, and the Middle East. "What makes the Ingersoll Rand Road Institute ideal is that the training is not conducted by academics, but by people with many years of experience in the construction business from within Ingersoll Rand and Blaw-Knox," says Fleming. "The instructors have performed this work in the field."