HARRISON – Too many times people utter the phrase: “Kids today just don’t have any ambition, they just want to party or sit and play video games.” Some may fall into that category, but a recent visit to the Clare County Road Commission revealed four young adults who couldn’t be farther from that stereotype.
Responding to a suggestion from Dewayne Rogers, CCRC managing director, the Cleaver ventured down to Mannsiding Road to meet some of the newest members of the crew. They included Ashlyn Kohn (age 19), Victoria Humphrey (20), Perry Davis (19) and Chase Swartzmiller (18).
Now some folks might envision young people there pushing a broom and hauling trash – after all, being around heavy trucks and blades, welders, etc., can be dangerous. But that is also far from the truth of the situation. These four are “haulin’ it!”
Rogers echoed that when he spoke of the current sentiment of it being “hard to find people and kids don’t want to work anymore.”
“But I found you guys,” he said. “And I think you’re doing a good job … we want to keep them around.”
Also accompanying the four at interview were Dave Bondie, superintendent, and Brian Coon, north road foreman. They elaborated on the particulars of the work being done by the four and where they fit in the broader picture.
Kohn and Davis are working full time, and Humphrey and Swartzmiller are temporary full-time and working their way to becoming full-time workers or potentially the next apprentice.
The obvious question is why did these young folks decide to seek a job at the road commission?
Kohn was quick to say that she didn’t want to go to college right away and have debt for something she didn’t want to do for the rest of her life.
“So, I talked to the counselor and they found Dewayne,” she said. “And Dewayne came and said ‘I have an apprenticeship open, come join’ and that’s what I did.
Kohn went on to say that “the learning” is what she likes best about the job.
“Being able to hands-on be there in the moment,” she said. “Not sit there and have these guys tell me this is what’s happening. Being out there, and physically being there, is the big part for me.”
Come this May,, Kohn will have been at the road commission for two years. Her position is the result of a MichiganWorks and CCRC apprenticeship program which includes a relatively fast-paced exposure/practicum in virtually all aspects of road commission work.
“I’m driving the tandem [-axle truck],” she said. “I do the grader occasionally. I get to experience it all with this apprenticeship. I just recently got off nights with our night patrol foreman; that was for two weeks and a total of 180 hours between two years. It’s like a rainbow, you get to taste everything.”
Kohn listed among her experiences work on grading projects, bridge crew, and more.
Bondie interjected that she had done skid steer, excavator, blade trucks, grader, shop work, hard surfacing, and been on the buckets welding.
“That’s the nice thing about the apprenticeship program,” he said. “She gets experience in everything, and she has so many hours of experience in all of this. That’s going to make her pretty valuable one day.”
Kohn added that she also had been able to attend a couple months of college to obtain certifications in Steering and Suspensions, and Engine Performance.
“Those weren’t the only classes that were on the list, but there were multiple classes that I was able to take if I’d choose to,” she said. “A total of 99 hours. It was good to get that experience as well.”
Humphrey, who has had her job for about two months, said she was seeking driving experience and a few of the other skills she could learn at the CCRC, for her future career.
“Such as heavy machinery operating,” she said, adding that she is still debating what might be that future career. “The road commission is looking pretty bright right now.”
Humphrey is loving driving one of the tandem-axle plow trucks. She said that, looking forward, it is possible she would want a future with the road commission. For now, she’s looking forward to the next season of road work to learn some more new things. She also said that upon learning she would be gaining more than driving experience at the road commission, she was intrigued, especially since having a CDL isn’t a guarantee of a job for someone who didn’t yet have any driving experience.
Then came the question of what’s been her greatest challenge.
“Honestly, for me, it was learning everything and understanding everything,” she said. “I had absolutely no experience when I came here – with literally anything. Just learning that new field was kind of a little challenging, but now that I’m getting into it, I’m starting to really like it. Which is why I’m starting to see more future with the road commission.”
Rogers added that Humphrey is part of an on-the-job training program offered through a road commission partnership with MichiganWorks. He said the program was intending to get her more experience and build her resume, that she is already excelling, and the road commission is now inclined to keep her on. “I think we’re swaying her in our direction,” he said.
Rogers also noted that the Clare County Road Commission is the first to have the apprenticeship in coordination with MichiganWorks and registered through the U.S. Department of Labor, and that it would be available for another road commission to do the same.
Davis has been at the road commission for seven months, and is a young man of very few words, but readily revealed why he sought work with the road commission.
“It looked fun and I knew a lot of people who worked here,” he said. “It’s different every day, you learn a lot of stuff – it’s cool to build the bridges.”
His favorite part of the job? “Everything.”
When asked what he would tell someone thinking about working at the road commission, his reply again was succinct. “Do it. It’ll be a fun time and you’ll learn a lot of stuff.”
Davis also spoke of what he thought people should know.
“We do a lot more than people think we do,” he said. “We do a lot more than meets the eye.”
Bondie expanded on Davis’s remark, noting that the road commission gets called to remove a downed tree from the road, for a drainage issue, a beaver dam, when water is flowing into a resident’s yard, to mow grass that’s too high and limiting the ability to see out of the driveway.
“There’s a million things that we do,” Bondie said. “They [the four] haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg yet of all we do. Maybe Ashlyn; she’s been her nearly two years. But for the other three, the learning’s endless.”
Swartzmiller, another man of few words, said he came because he “needed work.”
His favorite part of the job is “not sitting around at a desk, and always doing something.”
Coon noted that Swartzmiller has a Class A CDL, which is required of anyone working for the road commission.
“We’ve had him driving truck,” Bondie said. “We’ve had him riding with guys plowing snow in the last snowstorm, and we’ve had him working on the bridge maintenance program.” It was noted Swartzmiller also has worked in the shop changing blades, as well as spending some time in the sign shop. “He obviously hasn’t been here as long as the others, but he’s getting a mixed bag of what we do. And there’s more to come.”
Swartzmiller may be the youngest and most recently hired of the bunch, but that doesn’t mean he is inexperienced. In fact, after just one week of ride-along with a veteran plow driver, the January snowstorm from – well, we all know where it came from – he was put into his own truck and placed between two seasoned drivers running in a convoy clearing the highways. That work included accommodating an irregular schedule during the storm, and being available as needed.
When asked what he thought the public should know, he spoke of limitations on what can be accomplished.
“We can only do so much,” he said. “We’ve got people calling in saying their driveways are full of snow when we’re just trying to get the snow off. We’re not trying to fill your driveway.”
“When we say big storm like that, we have all hands on deck,” Rogers said. “We don’t have all veteran guys. Our veteran guys are working hard, but we’ve also got a guy like Chase who jumped in a truck by himself and was in that weather working, helping us out. Helping everybody out – people don’t realize that.”
It was noted that all four had been out working in the big snowstorm, and when asked their impression of that experience they offered: “I’m tired.” “It’s going to be a great paycheck.” “Toward the end it was ‘I want to go home,’ but working through it was pretty fun, just hammering through.”
Coon said that 30 years ago it was nearly impossible to get a job at the road commission – because people just didn’t quit, and planned to be there until they retired. He said that has changed over time and that, in his opinion, it’s pretty easy today to get a job with the road commission. Coon also noted that the four young people in the room represented the next generation of road commission workers stepping in to fill the unfolding retirement void.
There was some discussion regarding the type of personality that is needed in the job, which led to some friendly kidding about the personalities among the four.
“I think it takes a different type of personality to maintain and do this job,” Coon said. “Every career is different, and they all have different personalities. You could go to three different road commissions, and you could pretty much say there’s a Perry, Victoria, Chase and an Ashlyn in every road commission. They seem to have that type of a group.”
Rogers also touched on the aforementioned common perception of young people coming out of high school and the types of jobs they could typically get, i.e., stocking shelves, delivering pizza.
“And these guys are out in a blizzard plowing snow on a major highway, or out in the middle of the night clearing a tree off the road, or building a bridge,” he said. “The more experience these guys get, and hopefully the work environment, they’ll take pride in living in Clare County and taking care of Clare County – that’s the type of people we want here, and to keep.”
© Clare County Cleaver
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