For this month, here are a couple of points that I think are really important for the future of the asphalt industry. Here we go: (1) we need to bring new people in to our business, and (2) we need a long-term highway funding plan.
Like our highway infrastructure, our asphalt experts are aging. Much of our asphalt technology was developed in conjunction with the interstate construction program, and that was many years back. Many of the giants of our industry have retired; sadly some have died. Many others are approaching retirement. We need to attract and train new people before we lose access to these mentors.
Let me share a little of my experience. I was trained in asphalt by Ellis Williams, a former Asphalt Institute Regional Engineer who practically adopted me and gave me weekly one-on-one training when I was first assigned to an asphalt engineering position with the Kentucky DOT. Ellis became one of my heroes. By sharing his passion and knowledge, he made asphalt interesting and challenging. Ellis taught me the basics and served as a role model and as a long time resource.
Similarly, Jim Scherocman, another former AI engineer, spent a lot of time sharing his wealth of knowledge with me. Jim helped me see that our traditional practices were not working and then to understand and apply new asphalt technology. He, like Ellis, emphasized good practices and the importance of quality workmanship. Those principles became my primary focus during my career.
I’ve had the privilege of working with and training a few impressive young engineers and I’ve tried to take the time to explain the importance of our work and what we are trying to accomplish. I think that approach was a result of the training and support I received early on. (I only wish I was as good at passing it on as Ellis and Jim.)
As I mentioned earlier, we are losing a lot of expertise. Some of this is not due to age; I was able to retire from the KY DOT when I was 43 (– to take a position with the Asphalt Institute.) I wish our economy was stronger, so that we could hire replacements well before the “experts” retire. It’s not really efficient to have to start over again on the learning curve. Something to think about.
That last bit leads to my other point. We’ve got to come up with a long-term highway funding fix. Congress recently put a 10-month patch on the Federal Highway Trust Fund – holding off running out of money until the start of next year’s paving season. There is no political will to address the need, nor is there a slam dunk option that is acceptable to the public. I read last week that 73 percent of Americans believe our transportation money is spent “inefficiently” and 85 percent of those surveyed oppose raising the gas tax. I understand fixing the funding mechanism won’t be easy, but it needs to be done. With steadily deteriorating roads and bridges, we’ll pay one way or the other.