Talking Michigan Transportation

Celebrating 10 years of success in recruiting diversity at MDOT

July 31, 2023 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 5 Episode 150
Talking Michigan Transportation
Celebrating 10 years of success in recruiting diversity at MDOT
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, a reflection on 10 years of success in MDOT’s Transportation Diversity Recruitment Program (TDRP)

The 10-week program allows students to work alongside other on-the-job training program participants, internal staff and external professionals who provide engineering, technical, inspection, and project management services for state road and bridge projects.   

First, James Jackson, strategy director for MDOT’s TDRP, talks about the satisfaction he gains from working with students and the more than 50 who participated this year. The department released a video Aug. 1 featuring some of the students, highlighting the success of the program.  

Later, we hear from Zaya Wright, who graduated in the spring from Southern and A&M College and is finishing her second year in the TDRP program. 

Zaya talks about her goals to work in civil engineering and transportation and the satisfaction she draws from the process of designing and building safe roads and bridges.

Jeff Cranson:

Hi and welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation Podcast.

Jeff Cranson:

I'm Jeff Cranson.

Jeff Cranson:

Today I'm happy to be talking with a couple of people who were very involved in this year's Transportation Diversity Recruitment Program, something MDOT launched 10 years ago and because of that, because of a decade of success, they were able to celebrate at a showcase just last week with all the students who were able to go through the program this year.

Jeff Cranson:

And first I'll be speaking with James Jackson, who has coordinated the program for a number of years and his passion for this and for the student's success really shines in what he says. And then second I'll be with Zaya Wright, who graduated in the spring from Southern and A&M College and has a lot to say about her experiences in the program after a second year and why it's so important to provide these opportunities to students from historically black colleges and universities. So James Jackson is back for a repeat appearance on the Talking Michigan Transportation Podcast. This one is very special because it comes just a few days after he celebrated the showcase for the 10th anniversary of the Transportation Diversity Recruitment Program. James, talk about how you're feeling about this after 10 years and the success really in building this program, and explain your role.

James Jackson:

Hey, awesome. First and foremost, thank you for having me here. So when you talk about success and what that looks like, wow, I'm just elated to just be part of this. Any time you get a chance to be trusted, to walk out someone's vision, I consider that a tremendous opportunity. So when you talk about the success of 10 years we started out as a pilot program and we started with four students and along the way we've had up to 65. However, as we began to focus on quality, not quantity, this year I believe we had 54 students, but we can get deeper into that.

James Jackson:

But my position here at MDOT is Transportation, Diversity, Recruitment Strategy Coordinator. Long title makes for a long card. However, the position is created so that I'd be able to assist us with developing our future workforce. We start looking at how many people are actually retiring, as well as the constituents we serve, and we want to make sure that the candidates for hire at least embrace the values, the likeness and the interest in transportation. So I don't want to run away with the conversation but, again, my role is Transportation, Diversity, Recruitment Strategy Coordinator.

Jeff Cranson:

Well, you talked previously about ROI and that's what everybody wants to know, and I mean we should all view everything in government and business probably through that metric. But it can be very difficult to measure because it takes years sometimes to know what the fruits of the labor are when you're doing something like this. So I know you have lots of personal ways. You know anecdotally that I think measure up as to success for things like this over the years. But talk about how you evaluate it yourself.

James Jackson:

So evaluating success for this program is introducing students to the possibilities and perspective of working in the field of transportation, the reason why our federal government supports this type of program.

James Jackson:

You know, it's really no secret that how can I say this with-

James Jackson:

It's really no secret that for years, women and people of color I'm talking African-American, latino, native American, asian-american we're noticeably absent from this particular career path.

James Jackson:

So success to me is literally welcoming them to the great state of Michigan, allowing them to employ what they've learned in school to help us repair, develop, design the infrastructure we'll need to bring economic benefit back to the state of Michigan.

James Jackson:

So what success again looks like is introducing them and becoming part of their intellectual DNA, when I say intellectual DNA, being a part of the training process and the network of professionals that supports them as they build their capacity for knowledge and possibility for growth in the industry, and I believe that we've been able to do that. So, whereas our hope and goal is they wanna start their early careers in Michigan, we've had success with three students that were able to transition to our EDP, which is our Engineering Development Program. However, within our state wow, we've had roughly nine people actually migrate to Michigan from Southern states, although we are true four season state and they probably get 70 and 60 is their lowest temps migrate here because of the passion that our team and the state of Michigan have shown in helping them develop themselves. So success looks to me as introducing, engaging them and basically welcoming them here to learn and grow in their civil engineering paths.

Jeff Cranson:

So I'll be talking to Zaya Wright, who is in her second year in the program and came here from Southern and AMM College in Louisiana, so she can definitely speak to that issue of the difference in the temperatures. But I think you hit on such a key point there that if you can bring a handful of these along and expose them to the program and expose them to the opportunities in Michigan, then you're making a dent. It's all about doing what you can in your small corner of the world and I know that's important to you. And, given that the governor has put a heavy priority on stemming Michigan's population losses and trying to bring talent back and especially young talent, so talk more about that and why that's important and talk to a little bit more about I know this should be obvious, but in the day and age we live in, a lot of these things just aren't obvious why it's important that MDOT and every government agency and every business have a workforce that looks like the people that they represent.

James Jackson:

Right? Well, ultimately, we are public servants, right? So if you're serving the public and you don't have the ideas, the creativity or know of the challenges that impact a variety of demographics across the state, truly you're not doing the best job possible. Because, in order to really embrace diversity, it's much more than the shades of someone's skin, it's much more than the gender they identify. As, truthfully, the focus for me is I really wanna know the color of their genius, right? So when I say a statement brought like that, what do you mean?

James Jackson:

The color of your genius, based on the concepts that we learn in school, which are largely from textbooks and interactions with professor black or white. When you give when I say black or white, I mean like the framework of blueprint. But when you give a student the opportunity to frame that and color that in by giving them a valued work experience, exposing them to different software, exposing them to different challenges that people have in their living conditions, it really empowers the taxpayers, people that vote on legislature and things like that, to truly understand that they're being heard. So, by the small part that we own and recruiting talent from a diverse group of institutions, we really assist the leadership of our government by letting the constituents and taxpayers and citizens know that their voice is being heard and, truthfully, there's more attention put on the projects. When you kind of see somebody or something, no matter what that looks like you, it helps you begin to focus in on the impact that's being made.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, very well said. I know you've talked in the past about the two elements and how education gets you to the door and experience gets you through the door. I think we all know from our own experiences that everything we learn in the classroom is great, but what we actually learn when we are in the field and an internship, or if you're learning a foreign language, what you learn in the classroom doesn't begin to stack up what you actually learn when you go to another country and have to speak that language. So talk about why that experience, that hands on experience, is so important to the development.

James Jackson:

Okay, well, key thing, all right, If there's a publication that's put out, it's called the Michigan Hot 50. So it's basically speaking toward the top 50 careers, basically the job outlook through 2030. With that said, the projected annual job openings as rolls roughly around 500, maybe 530, 550. I can't recall, but it's in that range. So you know, when you talk about experience, like there are so many students that are academically talented but being able to fuse and synergize the academic experience with hands on, knowing who to talk to, knowing the impact of the infrastructure, is one thing. To do something in the lab, but to do something on the work site, looking at the conditions of our bridges, you know, in the state, our main goal is to keep people safe right, although there is some economic benefit associated with work, but to keep people safe. So being able to prove, show and prove, quote, unquote to show that you know how to do the formulas and do the research that could help us move forward, but to prove that by being on the work site, that you can actually examine and apply those skills you've learned, is really how can I say?

James Jackson:

It's not miraculous, it's just. It leaves people in awe because some of the things we actually think, especially with factors like global warming, low fridge frigid temperatures, like being able to test those and apply those by working with a team of professionals. As you come out of school, it really helps you get a fervor for the industry that you're going into. So we like to create those spaces because I believe the MDOT has the best employee network. I believe in growing and modifying our views toward culture and engagement. I believe we have some of the best executives that you could have, but we all know that we're a work in progress. That's why we say we go the extra mile. So giving people an opportunity that can get them some experience coupled with their education pretty much indemnifies the fact that we want to go the extra mile.

Jeff Cranson:

So it sounds like the MDOT TDRP program has kind of created a new mold and has become a model for others. It sounds like some other state DOTs have tried to emulate it or at least borrow some of the better ideas. Can you talk a little bit about that?

James Jackson:

Yes, truthfully, on behalf of the department, I am humbled that I've received calls from numerous states around the country to say, wow, how did you all do this? One in particular is OH DOT, Ohio Department of Transportation. We spent time in communities of learning, sharing best practices, and they were able to start their program this summer. It's called the STRIVE program. I wish I could speak more to what STRIVE stands for, but they say what did they say? Flattery, excuse me, when you try to duplicate a program or replicate a program, it's just flattering, because they identified that we were coming together to do something positive that could impact future workforce. So I've received calls.

James Jackson:

Actually, Greg Johnson, the Interstate Bridge Administrator, has been sharing the word, even in I believe it's Oregon. I've received calls from people in Oregon. I've been requested to come to various what do you call it? Different seminars, different just different spaces outside of the state where they wanted me to talk about partnering. So those are some of the benefits, but one of the greatest accomplishments that we have done is not only there's a time when students out of school, it's called summer melt. So by us partnering with Michigan universities to place them as their home away from home, it keeps students from thinking about dropping out of school. Also, public and private, with our partnerships with the ACEC, gives us the mindset of all in together. That's why the logo says all in together, because it shows how the public and private industry can work together to move the pendulum or the arrow that's focused on diversity forward. And also, lastly, if you look at our roads and the conditions of our roads, we need as much help as we can during the summer months when there's an aggressive construction program.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, I'm sure those kids who come here from other states see that and say, yeah, you guys really do need help. Yeah, absolutely so. You mentioned Greg Johnson, a former COO at MDOT, current member of the State Transportation Commission, who co-founded the program along with the former director, Paul Ajegba, back when Paul was working in the university region, and I think that's really, you know, a testament to the educational success. The fact that he is working on that interstate bridge that you talked about now between Oregon and Washington state, and that he would talk this up and that you'd be contacted by people there. That's just great. I just want to say congratulations again for that and for 10 years of success, what you know. 10 years from now, what would you like to look back and say happened in that period?

James Jackson:

Celebrating success is really important, but never forgetting where you come from. And I listened to the director, director, we three and his. His mindset was that, although it's necessary for us to do these types of programs now, he would love to see a day when people just understand and know and respect people for the talent and the diversity and the culture that they bring to the workforce. So, 20 years down the line, I'd like to be able to see where students and professionals and array of students, professionals are making impact across the nation and we'd be able to have our own kind of like transportation summit. You know we're building alumni across the nation and even across the world. I've had the opportunity to work with over 140 students over the last 10 years and you know I do my best to follow up with them. But I would love to see like a transportation diversity summit where people could really come together and talk about the needs of their constituents and be able to share plans and suggestions on how we can help each other.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, that's a really nice thought. Okay, so before we close James, you know we mentioned Greg Johnson earlier, former COO at MDOT, a co-founder and someone who's very passionate about this program, and you presented him with a special award at this year's showcase. Can you talk about that?

James Jackson:

As you mentioned, Greg Johnson and Paul Ajegba were the founders of the program, but culturally, making a way is super important, so we came up with the Waymaker Award, the TDRP Waymaker Award. So just in short, the Waymaker Award is prestigious honor that recognizes exceptional professionals who made significant contributions in the transportation industry by championing the cause of providing opportunities for all. And anyone that knows Greg, he's been committed to that type of work and just having him across the country as a leader and being able to have that award makes way and encourages other leaders across the country and right here in our state to do similar things.

Jeff Cranson:

And that's a great way to leave it. Before we go into the break and welcome Zaya Wright, who's in the second year of the program, as mentioned earlier, I want people to hear a little bit of a clip that the students heard last week from Governor Whitmer, who unfortunately couldn't be at the event but knew that it was important, and she took some time to record a video for the students. And I think you know having that buy-in from leaders at the highest levels of the state is a real tribute to you, James, and to the people involved in the program and what it means. So congratulations again.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer:

Hello TDRP, congratulations on being a part of the 10th Transportation Diversity Recruitment Program. You all got to spend the best time of the year here in Michigan Summer and construction season. I love this program because it combines two of my passions education and infrastructure. As you know, we're working hard here in Michigan to fix the damn roads and we need a next-generation workforce who can get it done, and that's where you come in. From your internships you saw how important our transportation workforce is and how the work you do makes a real difference in people's lives.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer:

This year's theme of breaking barriers, building bridges, a decade of diversity and inclusion and transportation really hits home for me. As you know, I'm all for breaking barriers and trying to build more than one type of bridge in Michigan. Our goal is to ensure everyone can make it here in Michigan and pursue their potential. I hope you learned a lot over the last few months while working with MDOT or one of our more than 100 partners. As your internships come to a close, please remember whether you are from Jackson State, Alabama, A and M, Prairie View or any other great HBCU. You're always welcome in Michigan. Good luck with your capstone presentations. I can't wait to hear about the great engineers, planners, designers and professionals that you become and I hope, ultimately you make your home right here in Michigan.

Jeff Cranson:

So I'm back with Zaya Wright, who is a second-year student in the TDRP program. As mentioned earlier in my discussion with James, it's great to have some retention to who is always better than one, and if you get something out of this in one year, I can imagine you get more out of it in two. Can you talk a little about yourself, Zaya, first of all, and then what led you to the program and your thoughts about it?

Zaya Wright:

My name is Zaya Wright. I am a recent graduate of Southern University and A&M College, as of May 2023. And what led me to it is the fact that all my other classmates were talking about it. They had went a summer before me, in summer 2021. And they came back and all they had to say was good things about it and how much they enjoyed their experiences. So because of that, I applied for the first time last I want to say fall and then I got an internship with a private firm called Tobler Roth Clark and I enjoyed that internship a lot and I knew that I was graduating spring 2023. So before I just hopped into a career, I wanted to do another internship, so I applied for the internship program again last fall.

Jeff Cranson:

So Southern University and A&M is in Baton Rouge. I believe are you a Louisiana native?

Zaya Wright:

I'm from Georgia, but I've been living in Louisiana my whole life almost.

Jeff Cranson:

So that's a long way from Michigan. What did you think, coming back here two years in a row? I guess you must have enjoyed the first year.

Zaya Wright:

Yeah, I did enjoy it. It's not as hot, right. I thought that it was a good opportunity for everything we were getting the experience the opportunity to work over the summer and not just probably do online classes, but also the flexibility, because some students I know right now have been doing classes and have been able to navigate their internship as well. So, I just think it is convenient and I think that's what also led me to it, and I guess I enjoyed my experience with the private consulting firm so much that I wanted more in the field experience, so with that I applied again.

Jeff Cranson:

So talk a little bit about the kinds of things you've done in the field both last summer and this summer.

Zaya Wright:

Last summer, since I was working for a private consulting firm, I wasn't out in the field as much. But when I did go out in the field we did site distance surveying and pacing and we also did manhole inspections at Hubble Roth and Clark. This summer I worked for MDOT in the Bureau of Development sector and I work under design survey support. So I'm traveling all throughout Michigan every week leveling benchmarks, leveling between benchmarks and collecting data using GPS receivers on benchmarks and using that data and inputting it into the National Geodetic Survey website and processing that data for and publishing it also for other people to see.

Jeff Cranson:

So, long term, do you think your interests would lie more in designing projects or overseeing the construction of projects, or maybe something else related to both those things?

Zaya Wright:

Yes, actually I think, especially after this summer, I'm way more interested in the side of transportation engineering as far as civil engineering goes, and I think I do want to design more and work on AutoCAD drawings, like I did back in the private sector, but also be out in the field inspecting and surveying and overseeing.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, so when you go home and somebody you know family or friends says you know, so what'd you do this summer, how do you talk about it in terms that they'll understand?

Zaya Wright:

How I talk about it is, I don't know. I have a really hard time breaking things down and making things simpler for people, so I will probably just give them a whole rundown of what I did and explain to them what a benchmark is, that it's a reference point in between spaces throughout almost every part of the world, and that you can collect data from these reference points in relation to how the earth is shifting or latitude and longitude or any of those things. I would try to make it simpler, but it's just sometimes not as simple as I would like it. Well, I guess, as other people would like it to be, but I enjoy explaining it too, so I don't have a problem with talking.

Jeff Cranson:

Well, it's good to develop that skill. I think I'm sure you've talked to a lot of people your mentors over the years who say that I got into engineering because I didn't consider myself a good communicator. But actually being good at civil engineering whether it's transportation or anything else requires strong communication skills, so it sounds like you're learning to develop those too.

Zaya Wright:

Yeah, and I work with a crew almost every single week on my projects or wherever we go, whether it's Big Rapids or Alpena, like today, and Black River and things like that so I think that has helped a lot. You can get that same teamwork in a private consulting firm office, but also, I feel like, in the field, you get even more of that communication.

Jeff Cranson:

So you mentioned the heat earlier. Back home in the south, where you're from your generation is, for very good reason, for the most part, very focused on climate and what's going on, with us having the hottest month on record, and what we need to do in terms of building for resiliency and planning for infrastructure that's going to be able to withstand what we know is going to continue. Is that something that you've developed a particular interest in?

Zaya Wright:

Yes, I'm actually very interested in environmental engineering and I would include that in any project that I am working on as a factor. I feel like that's important to keep the integrity of the environment that you're working in and making things as low emissions as possible and as wasteless as possible.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, good for you, that's excellent. So what would you tell somebody that you run into I guess you've graduated now, but anybody that's younger, that's headed off to school either at an HBCU like you or just anywhere about careers and what they could find in terms of rewards and fulfillment in civil engineering?

Zaya Wright:

My sister actually was a nursing major and she switched her major to civil engineering about a year ago because she was interested in the things that I do, and I would tell her that the world needs more civil engineers in general to help build the infrastructure back up after years of it being built or reworked on. Sometimes we need to create something completely new from the ground up and we need people that are able to do that. That's a job that I don't think will ever get old. We need people to come up with ideas and we need people to think of the most efficient ways, both environmental in terms of cost, in terms of the way that our earth is shifting and growing older and older. I guess also that is very important to have.

Jeff Cranson:

Well, that's very well said and very thoughtful. I would only add that it's not a net one for society, because we need nurses too.

Zaya Wright:

Yeah, yeah, my sister, I don't know I think she was getting a little caught up in the nursing school stuff and it was stressing her out also.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, well, it's nice that you could, you know, give her something to inspire her. Where do things take you from here? What do you think your future holds?

Zaya Wright:

Well, I just had an interview last week on Tuesday before the TDRP showcase event and it's looking pretty well. If not, I've still been applying for other places and they seem to also take an interest in me. So if everything goes well with the interview, then I'll be moving to Lansing soon to start a job as an area engineer.

Jeff Cranson:

Well, that is the best outcome that the organizers of TDRP could hope for to bring in a talented student like you from another state who decides to stay put. So that's great. I really hope that works out.

Zaya Wright:

Yes, sir, thank you.

Jeff Cranson:

So last year you were there when the Lieutenant Governor spoke to the group and this year you heard the Governor in the video. She wasn't able to attend, but she did a video ahead of time. What does that mean to you to know that at the highest level Michigan officials are committed to this program?

Zaya Wright:

To me it means a lot because I feel like that shows how many people actually are there to support us and really want to see more people like us in their field, and I feel like that is an amazing thing and that motivates me to keep going and furthering the knowledge that I do know about civil engineering, because I've wanted to before. But because of seeing how people need us, no matter what color, no matter what gender, I think that that is a great thing to see.

Zaya Wright:

It encourages us to keep going.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, absolutely, and I think you know that it's very important for any organization private or public government, you know, a private industry, whatever to have people in the field that represent the people that they're working for, so that they can see themselves in them.

Zaya Wright:

Yeah, I really enjoyed that with the TDRP program and it has taught me a lot, not only having to deal with my major, but also having to deal with people and converse with other people and having a different opinion, but still being able to collaborate on the things that are most important to us.

Jeff Cranson:

Well, Zaya, congratulations on your graduation and for what I'm sure is going to be a job offer coming your way soon and a rewarding career. And thank you for coming to Michigan and, you know, being part of this program and helping to keep it going and make it thrive.

Zaya Wright:

Thank you, I hope I answered your questions as good as I can. I'm sorry for the cars in the background. I'm out in the fields right now.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, no, and I knew that would be the case, and you did answer very well on your. You're a great spokesperson for the program, so you can. I'm sure that James will be happy to have you continue to be an ambassador in future years.

Zaya Wright:

Yes, sir, I was talking to him the other day and I really do want to be a part of this program because I enjoy seeing people like myself that really haven't had the experience come to Michigan and get that experience and possibly get job offers from it.

Jeff Cranson:

Yeah, that's great. Well, thank you very much once again and best of luck to you.

Zaya Wright:

Thank you.

Jeff Cranson:

I'd like to thank you once more for tuning in to Talking Michigan Transportation. You can find show notes and more on Apple podcasts or Buzzsprout. I also want to acknowledge the talents of people who help make this a reality each week, starting with Randy Debler, who skillfully edits the audio, Jesse Ball, who proofs the content, Courtney Bates, who posts the podcast of various platforms, and Jacke Salinas, who transcribes the audio to make it accessible to all.

Transportation Diversity Recruitment Program Success
MDOT TDRP Program and Impact
Civil Engineering Internship and Future Opportunities
Continuing as an Ambassador and Acknowledgements