Thursday, February 17, 2011

Professional Perspective

"There's never one right answer. That's the beauty of construction," said Jim Stenger.

We were in Heavy Civil headquarters on the 18th floor of the Nugget’s West Tower, and Kiewit people and laptops were everywhere. They were winding up the Request for Information session, a 6-hour window when teams can mine information from the experts behind the competition problem. The questions and answers are broadcast to everyone, so no one has an unfair advantage.

Stenger, a district quality and environmental manager for Kiewit who will judge the presentations tomorrow, was helping generate those answers. But he said requests aren’t always met, giving the students a taste of the real world. Sometimes they get exactly the details they’re asking for. Sometimes they’re told to review the specs more carefully. Sometimes they’re asked simply to “be creative.”

“We want them to struggle a little bit and learn something in the process,” Stenger said.

One of the individuals making sure they struggle constructively is Darrin Shelby, a Kiewit Alaska area sponsor who led the project that became this year’s Heavy Civil competition problem. On an existing jetty built to protect state park land from the violent waters off the Oregon coast, he managed a capping repair involving 37,000 tons of rock, rogue whales, salmon boats, tourists, high tide, rotting railroad ties, and plenty more monkey wrenches thrown in the mix.

When asked if companies ever pass on RFPs with daunting scopes or complexity, Shelby spoke for the room.

“We love jobs like this because they’re challenging and restrict the bidders who are scared to do it,” he said.

The student teams don’t have time to be scared (and fortunately, their missteps only have virtual consequences). Before 10:30 p.m., they must have completed a project schedule, cost estimate and technical proposal. If they don’t make the cutoff, it means immediate disqualification.

Either way, all 14 teams in Region 6 will present their work to the Kiewit panel on Friday, not to mention recruiters from the several dozen companies on hand for the job fair. Kiewit craft superintendent Matt Hemsath will be among them.

“Watching the presentations, you can pick out the leaders. You can tell who has a head on their shoulders,” he said. “If we make any new hires, most of them will go into what they’re working on today, but for real dollars.”

Real dollars drive the industry, and the ASC competition in Reno gives students a direct pipeline to opportunities with companies such as Kiewit and fellow problem sponsors Mortenson Construction, Layton Construction Company, McCarthy Building Companies Inc., Granite Construction Inc., Hensel Phelps Construction Co., Morley Builders, Swinerton Inc., Clark Construction Group, Kinetics, Webcor Builders, General Construction Co., Skanska, PCL Construction Services Inc., DPR Construction Inc., Cupertino Electric Inc., and Sundt.

Getting attention (and interviews) depends on performance. But even for the teams that don’t walk away with their names on a trophy, the experience is unmatched in its ability to inspire them to be their best selves and deliver in a way that can raise more than one veteran eyebrow.

“Students are very innovative,” Stenger said. “That’s what keeps it fun. They come from a different point of view.”

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