Connecting with future specifiers and engineers can help grow your business.
By Matt Werner
When businesses in the precast industry talk about outreach, the focus is often on connecting with local specifiers, contractors and engineers. But what if there was a way to educate these groups on the benefits of precast concrete before they even enter the workforce?
The NPCA Foundation provides scholarships as one way to expose students to the precast industry, but design studios and precast-specific courses have added a new dynamic to bringing precast to the classroom.
US Formliner General Manager Ray Clark knew he was onto something years ago after teaching architectural students about the precast concrete industry at Clemson University. He could tell they were excited about meeting a professional in the field and learning more about the material.
“I was driving home, and I just thought, ‘Wow. This is our future,’” Clark said. “These are the people designing our products, and we have to do more of this.”
Soon, other universities and colleges began reaching out, seeking someone to speak at their classes.
“We’re seeing engineering students being exposed to precast concrete that otherwise never would have been exposed,” Clark said. “We’re hearing from the professors that had these things not come along, these students never would’ve learned about precast. To me, that’s shocking, and we have to educate the students who are going to be specifying our products one day.”
Benefits for all sides
No matter where he is presenting, Clark can tell students are starved for more information about precast.
“The questions they ask are sometimes questions professionals don’t even ask,” he noted. “They’ll ask something that makes me think more critically.”
He’s also seen the benefits of engaging with the people who will one day be specifying precast.
“We’ve seen these students call up their professors and say, ‘Hey, I remember taking that class, but I need help. I’m trying to convince one of our senior designers to go precast,’” Clark explained. “That’s powerful. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Mustafa Mashal, Ph.D., P.E., SECB, CPEng, IntPE(NZ), is an associate professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at Idaho State University, where the NPCA Foundation, in conjunction with the PCI Foundation, recently helped sponsor a precast design studio. The biggest benefit for his students is the chance to learn about real-life projects and hear from professionals in the field to understand the benefits of precast concrete.
“I get to learn about the trends and the state-of-the-art technologies in the industry,” he said. “I get to know what topics are important to be covered during the class so that, upon graduation, the students already have some exposure and knowledge of those topics when they join the industry.”
Mashal said outreach from the precast industry has enhanced the material’s visibility within ISU’s civil and environmental engineering program. It has encouraged his students to participate in the precast concrete competitions and research projects and students signed up for NPCA and PCI memberships. Some students were even motivated to consider a career in precast concrete upon graduation.
Precast concrete producers must compete with a slew of alternative materials in the construction industry. Reaching the people who will one day be specifying these materials creates an advantage.
“If you’re so focused on hanging on to what you’ve got and not interested in other things, that’s fine, but then you’re not investing in the future,” Clark explained. “Those that invest in the future get the biggest returns on the investment.”
Clark knows it can be tough for small companies, particularly those as busy as precast concrete manufacturers, but said you don’t have to actively participate in everything. Instead, he encourages individuals to go by a university or college and drop off some literature or offer to teach one class.
“It’s an investment, but it’s a long-term investment that will eventually pay off,” he said.
Mashal also encouraged others in the industry to perform outreach, as there are many students who stand to benefit.
“These students will be the future of the industry,” he said. “I have seen how a lecture by someone from the industry can inspire students. A strong partnership between academia and industry will contribute to student success and service to the precast concrete industry.”
Clark has seen the benefits for his company, customers and students from his outreach efforts at colleges and universities.
“If you lay the groundwork now, the rewards will come,” Clark said. “It’s right there in front of us.”
Matt Werner is the managing editor of Precast Solutions magazine and is NPCA’s communication manager.