Training: The New Hampshire Grade Foreman Boot Camp

Once in a while you hear about someone taking the bull by the horn and stepping in to fill a gap. A case in point is the New Hampshire-based Construction Education Academy, the brainchild of Tim Edes of Eastpoint Lasers LLC, a laser, construction layout, and engineering supplier in Hooksett, NH, and Kent Brown of Brown Engineering LLC in Meredith, NH.

Edes has 30 years experience training construction personnel how to use layout tools and software and Brown has spent three decades in civil engineering and surveying and has been involved in training and curriculum design in the construction industry. Together they embarked on a mission to teach small and midsize contractors the ins and outs of high-tech layout and surveying equipment and software. The New Hampshire Grade Foreman Boot Camp uses a combination of classroom and hands-on training to give students a comprehensive overview of the essential concepts needed to use today’s modern survey equipment and computers for construction layout. But it didn’t start that way.

Eastpoint Lasers prides itself on personal service and training. “We strive to make sure every customer understands the product they’re purchasing and gets individual training so they better understand its capabilities,” says Edes. “The problem is that with all this high-end equipment we sell, we were getting bogged down with training. It’s not that contractors don’t want to be up to date and take advantage of the newest technology. The problem is learning how to use it. People kept asking me about where they could go to get additional training, and I didn’t have any place to send them. The little guys aren’t going to the big national programs like Trimble Dimensions. They need something more local. I’m talking about a contractor who maybe buys just one of something but has three guys who need to know how to use it.”

Edes researched courses in local tech schools and came up empty (there was one night course in Massachusetts and a school in Maine) so he and Brown started talking to local tech schools that would be accessible to contractors in their area.

“They told us to go ahead and put something together and they’d think about it,” he says. “But the way they were talking, we figured it could another four years to get something in their curriculum.”

Next up was the state of New Hampshire. “We took the idea of developing something like a trade school to the state, a one-year course for kids whose parents don’t want to spend $45,000 to $50,000 a year for a university, and they’re not going into the service to get a skill. We wanted something where you could send your child for $13,000 a year and when he comes out we’d place him in a job. We figured we had an idea that would be good for the state, because once the economy gets going again and we start building like we used to, we’re going to have a huge shortage of skilled guys to do this work.” But the time it would take to push the project through the state bureaucracy was beyond two men with businesses to run.

For a while Edes did a stint teaching with the local franchise of Associated Training Services but was frustrated because the curriculum was Midwest-based and didn’t relate to the industry in New Hampshire. Next up was a partnership with the local chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America. “We went to them with the idea that they would advertise the class in their newsletter and we’d do whatever it took to run it. For three years we did a winter program through AGC on survey and layout principles, GPS, and CAD type software. What concerned us was, one, the people who we weren’t reaching because they weren’t agency members, and, two, the way the AGC course was set up, there wasn’t enough time to go into the depth we thought people needed, particularly not enough field time. We wanted guys to be able to put their hands on the equipment and ask questions and not be rushed.”

So they decided to do it themselves. “We decided that if technology is in fact outpacing the work force, what was needed was an avenue for people who really want to get trained but not spend $20,000 at a university or a tech school. The idea was to focus on the principles of construction layout and software and GPS.” Edes and Brown established the Construction Education Academy two years ago and held the first two-week session last January with a full house of 22 students and a waiting list of seven. “This way we have complete control over what we want to offer to meet the kinds of needs we know exist,” says Edes.

They had held a focus group around the idea of a one-year course where contractors told them yes, if they could start producing 30-40 kids a year who know the technology and how to use it and they’re good workers, they’d hire them.

“They all said they’d support a factory like that to train young guys who can go right to work.” With this commitment in mind, Edes and Brown developed their boot camp curriculum, then went to the larger contractors in the area and let them know what they were up to.

“We asked them to find us the guy in their company who’s a worker but doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life on a pipe crew. A guy who’s already shown an aptitude for math and doing layouts and will be sticking around for a while. One hundred percent of the guys who came last year were sent by their companies, which invested in the $2,500 tuition to send them.”

Even more interesting, Edes says, eight to 10 of this inaugural group were sons of company owners, next-generation management “who know how fast this equipment is moving.”

The 40-hour Grade Foreman Boot Camp is spread over two weeks in the winter off-season, Monday through Thursday, with Friday as an optional snow day. The curriculum includes everything from basic leveling and automatic levels all the way up to GPS, specifically Data Collectors, Field Book Note-keeping, Uploading/Downloading Point Files, Coordinate Geometry, Transferring Benchmarks, Level Loops, Centerline Layout, Offsets, Use of Total Stations, Robotic Total Stations, Global Positioning Systems, GPS Localization, Working with CAD files, As-Builts, and Jobsite Communications.

The two-week course also includes two sessions in a computer lab, where everyone gets a chance to work with AutoCAD. The morning’s two-and-a-half hours are spent in the classroom, held at a facility where they also get lunch, and the two-and-a-half hours in the afternoon are used for either a field session or a computer lab, with half the class working with the instruments, half with software. In order to provide the personalized hands-on instruction both men think is essential, the course is limited to 22 to 24 students.

“The challenge is having 22 guys in a room where some have never done this kind of work and some have been doing it for a couple a years. We start with the basics, which both Kent and I consider essential, and ask the guys who have been doing it awhile to help the other guys out. The ones with experience also benefit, because some of them might have been taught by someone in their company who didn’t really know what they were doing.

“And it never hurts these guys to see the old-fashioned way of doing things again, to confirm what they’ve been doing, and to get a chance to see there might be a different way. Kids are getting so used to technology that they don’t know how it was done before. So if the instrument is giving them the wrong answer, they don’t know it’s the wrong answer. I watch these companies making a $35,000 to $40,000 investment and giving it to a young guy and saying “˜Go ahead.’ The young guy doesn’t know whether what the instrument is telling him to do is right, because he doesn’t have the background to know how the math was done in the first place. I see it weekly that a guy’s got wrong information, but he keeps going because he doesn’t know it’s wrong. That’s one of the important thing we’re trying to do: nip this in the bud so the guy knows right away when something doesn’t work right and has a way to check it the old way just to make sure.

“The other thing we wanted to do is give them experience with equipment from different manufacturers. It’s harder for the instructors, but if you go to a manufacturer-sponsored course, all you’re becoming familiar with is their equipment. And what happens in our business is if a guy gets laid off and goes to apply for a job at another company that’s using somebody else’s equipment, he’s stuck. You can’t always be running the same equipment all of the time. This approach is very good for the students, but it’s hard for the instructor, so we trying to figure out how to do it better and get the same results.”

Bob Pavernik, superintendent at Viking Excavation LLC in Candia, NH, took the first boot camp last year because he was looking for something to send potential grade foremen to. This year he’s sending two crewmembers. “It’s a valuable class for their target audience. They could use more hands-on, but you can never get enough of that.”

What’s next? “We realize that with this first course we got the cream of the crop,” says Edes. “Now we’re looking at some of the older guys. In fact, in our presentation to the state we put forward the idea of training returning military personnel. The big challenge is getting to the people who need this. At some point, to keep this thing rolling, we’re going to need to expand beyond New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, and northern Massachusetts. How do we reach people in other states that could benefit from this? In the east we’re pretty much confined to the off-season; once the weather gets good, everybody’s busy. But there are plenty of places in the sunbelt where we could do it year-round.”

They also haven’t given up the idea of a one-year comprehensive program. “The next step for the two-week course is a big one, reaching out beyond New England. But the next step beyond that is huge, when you start getting state agencies involved and developing a year-long degree program.”