The future of the precast industry lies with the next generation.
By Kirk Stelsel, CAE
Internships as we know them today are relatively new. While apprenticeships have been around for centuries, modern internships started showing up just 50 or 60 years ago.1
They range from paid to unpaid positions and attract college and high school students and even mid-career professionals looking for a change. While anyone can be an intern, no one is guaranteed the same experience. Part of the experience is up to the employer, but part is incumbent upon the intern to make the most of it.
In the precast concrete industry, formal internships are less common than a more informal approach where the son or daughter of the owner, or an employee or friend of the company, works during the summer for extra cash, to experience manual labor or to learn the company from the ground up. But the NPCA Foundation is working to expand on that practice and, as a result, share the industry with individuals who may eventually end up working in a precast plant or in a construction-related field as a specifier.
The program is in its infancy, but the early results have shown great promise for both the students and the businesses that host them.
BUILDING A FOUNDATION
When Noah Baughman arrived at Lindsay Precast’s plant in Alachua, Fla., he was like a sponge, ready to soak up the entire experience. He hoped it would inform not just his education but his entire career. Baughman had just transferred to the University of Florida for his sophomore year and planned to pursue a degree in materials engineering, but he had a lot of uncertainty about what he wanted to do with his career.
“The big thing is pulling them into our industry and keeping them interested,” said Todd Hadorn, director of employee development for Lindsay Precast. “With Noah, on his resume, he’s a materials engineering student but he said right on his resume and during his interview that he wasn’t sure if he was going to go into precast or if he was going to go pre-med and into med school.Being here, his interest has really been piqued and we liked him so much that we offered him a part-time job while he’s in school.”
Baughman’s internship was a 10-week program that rotated weekly to give him exposure to as many departments of the company as possible. He spent time with production, quality control, estimating, engineering, scheduling, purchasing, batching and shipping. Each week, he wrote a report covering not only what he learned, but at least one piece of advice for the company based on what he observed.
Hadorn said that type of feedback is critical not only to inform them of what they can do better for the next student – the company already has a student lined up for next summer – but it also improves the company and its operational procedures. Some of the suggestions the company was able to address right on the spot, others are topics it will consider for the future.
“Personally, for me, and for the Florida Division of Lindsay, it was an awesome experience,” Hadorn said. “It’s a win-win for anybody who does it. You’re obviously promoting the precast industry but at the same time you’re getting feedback on your industry and gaining insight from a younger generation.”
Hadorn said another critical aspect of the experience for Baughman was the opportunity to live on his own and earn his own way for a summer before going to school. Lindsay not only paid him for his work, but also covered his housing.
For Baughman, a lot of the work was eye-opening. For example, seeing first-hand how things learned in textbooks are not always so cut and dry in reality showed him what a large role common sense plays when faced with solving real-world problems. In addition, one major portion of his week with QC was learning how concrete testing is conducted. He was able to help pour the testing samples in cylinders, run slump tests and conduct other QC tests. This was especially interesting to him as it closely relates to materials engineering.
“I felt that I gained a lot seeing the materials engineering in action as the various admixtures, water adjustments and quality control processes go into ensuring the concrete produced is both quality and economical,” he said. “I liked how it all comes together. I really like precast because if you do a good job in the plant, it creates a permanent thing in the world for a lot of people to share.
“One important feature I noted was the redundancy required and precaution built into all required levels to ensure the products produced by Lindsay do not fail. I learned how important every detail is. If a bridge is going into a roadway, it has to be perfect or it could put people in danger. There is so much work to make sure everything works well.”
Another lesson that stuck with Baughman was the important role of every employee in the company, how Lindsay maximizes their value and how good ideas can come from anywhere.
“I definitely learned a lot about concrete and also about people skills – how to be flexible and how to manage a lot of moving parts,” he said. “It was very interesting to see how far practical critical thinking skills can go into increasing efficiency. As I hope to move into management later in my career, being aware that employees can have these ‘out of the box’ abilities hopefully will help me better locate talent to reward creative behavior and reward innovation.
“Typically, in school we do not cover these types of informal approaches, but in some circumstances they can be equally if not more so efficient, and I feel that seeing them first hand was a real eye opener.”
When Carlos Enriquez, a student at California State University Chico, also known as Chico State, used to think about precast concrete, the first thing that came to mind was 3-D printed material. That’s before he took a class that incorporated precast into the curriculum as part of his Concrete Industry Management program and his internship at Jensen Precast’s plant in Sacramento, Calif.
Jensen placed Enriquez in the QC department but he experienced many other parts of the company as well. His day started by reviewing the production schedule to make sure everything being poured that day matched the schedule. Next was QC tests and to make sure the pre-pour inspection was done. He was also involved in production, working on manholes and other products.
“I really liked the hands-on experience,” he said. “My supervisor would move me around every other week, so I got a feel for all of the departments. I also liked the people I worked with.”
Through his hands-on engagement with the material, Enriquez said he that precast manufacturing is much more mechanical than he realized. He also learned how to read the schedules and identify the products once they were in the yard, and then how to find them. Of course, the amount of work was more than he realized when he started. The experience in the plant has given him a desire to learn even more, not just about how things are done at the plant and in the office, but also on the job site.
“I would like to learn more about the business side of things, like product management and estimating,” he said. “But I also want to learn more about the application of the products such as how to set it up on the job site. How do you know which end goes where and how to install it – things like that.”
As he prepares for the rest of his courses at Chico State, Enriquez is particularly excited to take a class that will focus on precast, which he feels very confident about now that he’s worked in a precast plant. But the learning he did during his internship extends far beyond the classroom.
“Going in, I didn’t even know the precast industry makes products for things like sewer systems and the walls for sound barriers,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about that and it was pretty cool learning about it. The precast industry is definitely on my radar for after graduation now and the experience also helped me realize the amount of work I have to do to get ready for my career.”
INVEST EARLY AND OFTEN
With the economy humming along and labor in short supply, it can be hard to find time for anything other than trying to keep up with the flow of work coming through the front door. But, like the power of compound interest – which only works if you start early – the same is true of the investment in the students who will become employees and specifiers. Starting now ensures they understand the full capabilities of the precast industry when they step into their future careers.
Kirk Stelsel, CAE, is NPCA’s director of communication.