Virginia DOT’s Data-Driven Approach Leads to Growth in Apprenticeships, Ongoing Improvement

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is growing its apprenticeship program and finding other ways to attract, train, and retain employees using strategies supported by data. Jameo Pollock, M.Ed., CPP, Statewide Technical Training Manager at VDOT delves into the metrics and uses them to help discover ways to recruit and retain employees for the most critical positions. He also uses them to make ongoing adjustments to how things are done.

Pollock points to the numbers that spurred VDOT’s interest in starting an apprenticeship program for Construction Inspectors. At the time, 75% of all construction inspection work for VDOT projects was being done by contractors.

“Contractors are more expensive than having your own construction inspectors. We began looking for alternatives to reduce this number because it is our responsibility to maximize value and be good stewards of public funds,” said Pollock.

One of VDOT’s most seasoned construction inspectors developed a training program and piloted it in-house. It was very successful, and VDOT was able to turn it into an apprenticeship program that is registered with the U.S. Department of Labor and open to anyone. This apprenticeship program has been up and running for six years.

Using apprenticeships to build capacity aligns with the Virginia governor’s Executive Order, “Forty-Nine (2015) – Expanding Registered Apprenticeships in Virginia,” which directs the expansion of state agency enrollment as registered apprenticeship sponsors.

Since coming to VDOT in 2017, Pollock has tracked the performance of the program.

An apprentice studies a plan book.

“People who participate in our apprenticeship programs are staying with the organization, and many have been promoted into positions of increasing responsibility,” said Pollock.

Pollock will continue to look for ways to improve the program’s results, as well as ensure continuous development and opportunities across the Commonwealth. “That’s where the true value will be—an apprentice program that delivers sustained success and boosts our workforce readiness and success,” he said.

Some of the improvements made to date include:

  • Improving the screening process to source people who are a good fit for the construction inspector positions long-term. Some people, who had been hired previously, had master’s degrees in Engineering or were Professional Engineers and used the position as a stepping stone to get into VDOT, leaving as soon as an engineering position opened up.
  • Tracking apprentice retention and ensuring that these employees stay for three or more years. The data show that an apprentice’s productivity improves by 117% by their third year. That is the year that VDOT begins to recoup its investment in that employee.
  • Partnering with the community college system to teach the required instructional courses. This removes the instruction burden from VDOT employees and managers.
  • Providing more dates and locations throughout the state for various classes, so students have access and are able to complete the program in a timely fashion.
  • Encouraging mentorship among managers. A survey of past apprentices demonstrated that a key success factor was the presence of a strong mentor.

Another area where the numbers have helped to tell the story is among the heavy equipment operators. After doing some research, Pollock found that to meet annual relicensing training for VDOT heavy equipment operators, the organization taught 157 classes and spent half a million dollars on that training in 2017.

Moving forward, the Workforce Development Team at VDOT is committed to fully optimizing available technology to boost workforce capabilities. As one example, Pollock estimates that the use of simulators can reduce the required training hours by half. His plan to purchase two mobile simulation labs has been approved.

“One of the most exciting recent developments is partnering with Greg Henion, Deputy State Construction Engineer, in the Construction division to develop clear pathways through multiple levels of inspection roles,” said Pollock. With this program, candidates are given more training and competency development, rounding out their technical skills to include other essential aspects such as budgeting and project planning.

Finally, with the success of existing apprenticeship programs at VDOT, the Workforce Development Team is currently in the process of analyzing and exploring additional apprenticeship program options. Already in the works are a youth apprenticeship program, an Equipment Repair Technician program, and a Land Survey Technician program. More to come.