Training in the World of Asphalt

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Listening to instructors Steve Neal and Wayne Tomlinson talk about what they do at the Road Institute, a kind of mini-asphalt paving university for contractors, DOTs, municipalities, engineers, material manufacturers, and just about anybody who has a connection to or an interest in the asphalt paving industry, suggests another look at what good training can be about.

Train. Train. Train. We hear it everywhere-how important it is, how we’re not doing enough. But too often the nature of training ends up being, “Time is short so pack in as much as you can and get everybody back to work quick.”

Not much background, minimal discussion, hardly a nod to individuality or creativity, and always with time hanging over our heads like an anvil.

The Road Institute, which now falls under the flag of Volvo Construction Equipment, was established back in the 1960s with a very simple mission: introduce the paving industry and its clients to a new technology for asphalt paving. Congress had just passed the 1956 National Interstate and Defense Highway Act, which provided $25 billion (in 1956 dollars) to construct the Interstate Highway System. It was highway building on a scale never seen before in this country and the world of paving tooled up with a change from tamper technology to the vibratory screed technology that is now standard.

“There was a need to explain to distributors and to the DOTs what the technology was about and how it was going to benefit the road construction industry,” says Neal, who was then at Blaw-Knox. “The fact was that regulations and the road building specifications had to change and we had to explain why and how.”

 But equipment was not the only aspect of the asphalt industry that needed a push. The Asphalt Institute was already long established by the time the interstate gear-up shined a light on the need first, to reinforce road the idea that asphalt could be used for heavy-duty highways with state and federal engineers, and second, for the development of technical and educational programs to insure mix consistency. Today the Institute’s Asphalt Academy offers a combination of classroom and laboratory courses at its headquarters in Lexington, KY, and at regional locations throughout the country. Topics include everything from the basics of binder technician training to principles of hot mix asphalt to airport pavement workshops. The binder technician training offers intense hands-on practice with test procedures and sample preparations using various types of technology. The classes are small and taught by industry practitioners, in order to “make effective transfer of the technology,” says media spokesperson Brian Clark, and participants take home manuals written by the experts who teach them.

Like the Asphalt Institute, Volvo’s Road Institute evolved from educating decision-makers and sales staffs to focusing on the people actually doing the work. Today it holds classes in Chambersburg, PA, and in Phoenix, AR. The Pennsylvania classes are mostly classroom, but the Phoenix courses are offered in four-day segments that include two hands-on days during which the 6-16 participants are put through their paces on pavers and rollers alike. First comes a day-long seminar on theory and principles of operation, best management practices, different types of machines, machine components, and even a glossary of terms for green operators. The second and third days are spent on the equipment, the second day focused on mechanically controlling the paver, the third day setting up and using the automatics. Both days involve paving and compacting actual mats, usually four to six a day, and participants get a dose of both machines. The equipment is Volvo’s but the operating procedures and BMPs are generic.

Philosophy. “There is an element of technology and technical control on pavers,” says Neal. “But it’s still a technique-oriented operation.

Technique is not a word often associated with training, in part because it flies in the face of the standardization that modern training programs aim for, but Neal says it’s essential if operators are going to be maintain quality over the long term. “What we’re trying to do,” says Neal, “is teach people how to use the equipment to the best of their ability and maximum its capacity to get the best job done in the shortest amount of time with the least amount of wear and tear and cost.”

“Part of our task,” says Tomlinson, “is that we listen as much as we teach. This helps us prepare our participants for when they go back to their jobs. Sometimes an old-hand will tell us that what we’re telling him doesn’t work for what he has to do with the material he works with, so we discuss it and may find someone else in the group who can talk about how they do it under those conditions.

Mix producers attend the course to check on how their material affects the paving crew’s job and Tomlinson says people are always looking for Road Institute input when the technology changes, including how a new mix will affect operations and how best to handle the new material.

Putting paving and compacting personnel together in the same class was deliberate, the idea being that each will appreciate what the other does, how it affects the crew’s output and how they can help each other. “We emphasize do your job,” says Neal, “and know the other guy’s job but don’t try to tell him what to do. After a while you’ll see the crews that are really good don’t have to talk to each other. It’s a kind of coordinated dance. They’re always looking at the surface of the material, the thickness, the profile, they’re watching when trucks are coming in.

Long-term Commitment. Road Institute participants get a 125-page book that recaps the presentations, a CD, safety manuals, pocket guides and a slide rule calculator. And training doesn’t stop with the four days. “They get our anytime toll-free number,” says Tomlinson, “a specialized e-mail address for our group and sometimes even our personal e-mail addresses. If they have a problem and if they send us enough information, we can often get it straightened out for them.

Individual development. Repeats are common. One operation in Georgia came five years in a row until it had its entire staff trained (Tomlinson expects to see them back in a year or two for a refresher), the same thing with a municipality in California, which sent its staff four years in a row until everyone “was talking the same language.

Municipalities in Minnesota and in New Jersey have done the same.

Paver operator Cesar “Junior” Jimenaz at George W. Weir Asphalt Construction Inc. outside San Diego attended the Road Institute’s November 2011 session in Phoenix at the suggestion of his boss, who saw it as an opportunity for him to keep up to date on technology. “We had automatics on the machine,” says Jimenaz, “but it was hard for us to get started with them. We did a lot of things manually to get up to a certain point and then we turned on the automatics. With what I learned here, now we will be able to set the paver, turn on the automatics and go.

Neither Neal nor Tomlinson is a fan of operators learning on the job or of going onsite to teach them right from wrong. “With OJT no matter how much you learn, you pick up bad habits,” say Neal. “It doesn’t make what you do wrong, but there are things that you could do to operate more efficiently and at less expense in terms of wear and tear.

“We want to encourage operators to come here and get away from what they do where they’re at,” says Tomlinson. “When you get people out of their comfortable environment, they open up more to suggestions. We hardly ever make recommendations to the crews on a job site because they’re unreceptive. We had a guy last year who operated a Brand C paver. For the first couple of hours he sat in the chair with his arms folded. Then after listening for a while, he started explaining what he did with his paver and was able to understand how the paving principles we were talking about apply to his machine as well as ours and others.”

“The first thing your bosses tells you is they want quality,” says Jimenaz. “If that’s the case, they should send their workers to classes like this, which makes it possible for us to give them the quality they want.”

“We had the technology,” says compactor operator Marty Skiffington, who attend the Road Institute with Jimenaz, “but we didn’t know how to use it to improve production and quality. That’s pretty important right there.”