New high school program helps maintenance agencies train and hire skilled workers.
With winter just a couple of months away, many local transportation departments are gearing up to make sure they’re ready to quickly treat and clear weather-impacted roads when storms hit. But staffing shortages continue to make this preparation difficult for many agencies around the country.
With so many public works agencies losing experienced employees to retirement, they face a real challenge to fill all those vacancies.
On-Ramp to a Career
An inventive new training model has emerged from the mountains of Colorado that could help provide some relief. Front Range Community College (FRCC) has built a program that brings high school students into a senior seminar in public works and road maintenance. Offered for 12th graders, it’s designed to provide a smooth on-ramp to a career in public works.
“Through this program, road agencies can hire high school graduates who are knowledgeable in the industry, eager to work, and looking for a career in transportation operations,” says Sue Baillargeon, director of FRCC’s highway maintenance management program.
“Each employer gets to train them—on the job—to their own specifications through the internship piece of the program.” She says the seminar can work for students just about anywhere, so she expects it will expand to agencies beyond Colorado in the very near future.
Learning the Basics
Students in the program take two road maintenance-related classes at FRCC for free—earning college credits while still in high school. The classes are paid for by the students’ local school districts through concurrent enrollment programs, which exist in most states.
The classes are offered remotely (via Zoom), which allows students to participate from, literally, anywhere they have an internet connection. Sessions meet just twice a week for 50 minutes each. The classroom portion of the program includes:
- OSHA-10 Certification (1 credit)
- Highway Maintenance 101 (3 credits)
The highway maintenance course gives an overview of general safety practices; acquaints students with how government agencies work; and teaches them the basics of:
- Asset management
- Road preservation and treatments
- Traffic control devices and signage
The course also prepares students with basic awareness of the leadership and management skills necessary to run a public works team—and they learn about and discuss the future of the industry. At the end of the class, they get advice on résumé writing and useful guidance on how to apply for jobs.
Applying Classroom Learning on the Job
Once these students have learned the basics, the college helps each of them line up a paid internship for after their high school graduation. Partner agencies—like public works departments or traffic control companies—hire these interns for 6-8 weeks, with the intention to hire them on as full-time employees once they successfully complete the program.
As interns, students gain practical experience in public works and road maintenance by taking the knowledge and skills they’ve gained in the classroom and applying them on the job.
“It’s a textbook win-win situation,” says Baillargeon. “Our students get paid to learn critical new skills, and our employers end up with well-trained employees who have all the skills their organization needs.”
This high school program is an offshoot of FRCC’s associate degree program in highway maintenance management, which began in 2019. It’s the first degree of its kind in the nation—and because the entire program is offered online, it already has students and graduates from 14 states.
Building Your Own Workforce Pipeline
At the outset of the internship process, each organization that partners with FRCC gets to specify the skills they want their interns to learn. That way, they end up training employees who have the exact know-how their agency or company needs.
Colorado traffic control company Loveland Barricade is using FRCC interns to help build its own workforce pipeline.
“We are so happy with the interns and the program,” says Andrea Severin co-owner of Loveland Barricade, which was the first company to partner with FRCC when the Senior Seminar began in 2022. “Our interns have really stepped up and one is showing great leadership potential. We plan on giving him some training responsibilities soon.”
Interns Hit the Ground Running
“On Day One on the job, these students can recognize safety hazards, and they’re ready to perform manual labor tasks like sweeping, shoveling, painting, mowing grass, or any other entry level tasks,” says FRCC’s Baillargeon.
The high school students who participate in the program usually aren’t planning to go to college, but they still want to find good jobs. “This is a great opportunity for high school students who may not want to go to college—or who can’t afford to—but who don’t want to work at McDonald’s either,” she says.
Developing Home Town Talent
These students often want to work in the town where they live. That means they already know the area and the roads. “There are a lot of non-college bound students who want to make a decent wage,” Baillargeon adds. “These young people already live in our communities all over the U.S., so why not tap into this resource?”
“Our intern Jay blossomed into a trusted employee who learns quickly, takes initiative, works independently and displays leadership skills,” says Severin. “Jay has become a valued member of the LB family and one of the company’s best employees. We’re even thinking about giving him an opportunity to teach our new employees.”
Launching a Career
When students come out of the internship, they’re ready to work. Depending on the competencies decided on by the agency and FRCC’s program director, the students may come out of the program with:
- skills such as basic traffic control and small tool usage
- experience applying preservation treatments to road surfaces
- knowledge of local assets
These workers are employable in almost any public works agency. And because the students are starting their careers young, they’re likely to remain employed in the local workforce for many years to come.
“Once they get into the business, these young employees see opportunities for growth,” FRCC’s Baillargeon says. “They may even eventually come back to FRCC for their associate degree in our highway maintenance management program.”
She points out that some agencies will even pay for employees who want to advance in their organization to continue their education.
Training Tailored to Each Organization’s Needs
Any agency that hires one of FRCC’s interns gets to help define the competencies they want their interns to learn. For example, an agency focused on winter maintenance might choose to teach their interns about plowing, driving safety, and loading liquids and materials.
When Loveland Barricade became FRCC’s first internship provider in 2022, they wanted the students to learn traffic control and flagging, how to make signs, and how to work on a striping crew. The company has taken on two students as interns so far—and both are still employed there.
Severin has already requested additional FRCC interns for next spring. “We can’t wait to get more!” she says.
Jay and Brian Got Paid to Learn Their New Jobs
Front Range Community College’s highway maintenance internship education program gives students a phenomenal opportunity. They get to earn college credit while still in high school and they get paid to gain practical work experience—under the supervision of an experienced employer and college faculty member.
During the internship, students get work experiences that take the knowledge and skills they have learned in the classroom and apply them on the job. Interns in the program also get:
- A job under an industry mentor
- Two additional college credits
- The chance to network professionally
- Exposure to challenging new situations they can’t experience in a classroom
- A chance to identify—or redefine—their career goals
- Qualified for full-time employment and CDL training
17-year-old Jay Chavez was not in a position to do much after high school except work at a fast-food restaurant or the Walmart in his town—but that was before he found FRCC’s program. Through his Senior Seminar at FRCC, Jay was introduced to a career that he had not previously considered.
Interning at Loveland Barricade gave him the chance to start a real career and earn adult wages the day he graduated from high school. Now at age 19, Jay has been able to purchase the truck of his dreams—one he says he never would have been able to afford before getting this job.
Another Loveland Barricade intern, Brian Gonzales, is still working on call at the company a year after completing his internship. He’s currently studying automotive technology at FRCC and wants to go into fleet maintenance for the company.
“This program is making their dreams come true when they never saw it coming,” says FRCC’s Baillargeon.
Expanding the Program
Since Front Range Community College’s courses are offered via remote learning, agencies around the country can enroll their local students in the college’s senior seminar in public works and road maintenance. (Under the current funding model, the students do have to still be in high school—because school districts reimburse the college for the courses).
Most districts pay for concurrent enrollment courses, but if you’re not sure whether your local district does this, you can usually find that information on the school district website. “Or just give them a call and ask,” suggests Baillargeon.
Building New Internships
It may be surprising, but creating an internship through FRCC is not a lot of work for an agency. Usually a short ½-hour meeting at the beginning is enough to discuss the organization’s desired competencies and to align the program with your agency’s needs.
Another short meeting at the end of the internship is all that’s needed to wrap things up. FRCC’s program director Sue Baillargeon does the rest of the work, making the necessary connections and communicating with the agencies. The college tracks all the hours and credits for the students.
All the college needs from local school(s) is a commitment to inform their high school students about the program and to let them know-how to sign up. (FRCC can provide a flyer with all those details.) Then the school district agrees to pay for the two FRCC classes, and helps the college connect with the students.
Wondering What This Might Cost Your Organization?
There are two models for this: Some simply pay the bill and consider it an investment in their new employee. So far, most of the agencies that take FRCC interns have paid for the two college credits the students earn through the internship.
Others pay the bill and deduct it from the intern’s pay in increments over time. Either method allows the student to participate without any out-of-pocket expenses.
For agencies that may not be able to foot the bill, the Front Range Community College Foundation—the school’s fundraising arm—has scholarship money available, which students are eligible for once they register at the college.
For local Colorado agencies that take FRCC interns, the college can offer free training from the state’s Local Technical Assistance Program in exchange for what the agency pays for the internship credits.
FRCC’s Sue Baillargeon recommends that anyone who has questions about the Senior Seminar program get in touch with her directly. If you’d like to talk about how to get your agency involved with FRCC’s program, she’d love to hear from you:
Susan Baillargeon (email@example.com), program director
Front Range Community College
After students finish their internship, they can also take the six college credits they’ve earned and apply them toward a degree in Highway Maintenance Management from FRCC—the only associate degree program in the country in this field.
Baillargeon says the next step for FRCC will be creation of a new bachelor’s degree program for the program’s graduates, so that they can continue their education and build onto their associate degree. Stay tuned for more information on that…
For now, Baillargeon says she hopes to expand the existing high school program to include more employers around Colorado—and hopefully in other states as well.
“Tapping into this rich candidate pool is a great way for employers to invest in their local graduates, their community and their own teams.”