School: Michigan Technological University
Major: Civil Engineering
Company: RailWorks Track Systems, Inc.
Internship from May 16, 2016 — August 19, 2016
I grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, meaning we have long winters. That always lead to a short amount of time to get all the outside projects — like hauling wood, fixing the yard, and making all the crazy building ideas my dad had a reality — completed. In the end it meant I was always “stuck” helping him get them done. The most memorable projects were when he had me help him do stone work. Every time he decided to build something that involved stone work, he would get a hold of his “stone mason”. At first, being a typical teenager, I’d want to complain about it. In the end though, it was always the most rewarding feeling knowing the rock wall that I just helped create would, hopefully, be there throughout my life time. That rewarding feeling, when you get to see your hard work completed, is exactly why I decided I was going to join the construction industry.
On top of that addicting reward, when I took Physics in High School, I discovered how much I crave knowing why things in our world are put together the way they are. Why do bridges have trusses? Why are curves on roads banked? How on Earth does a skyscraper stay standing? All these questions, and my one million others, have been answered with my time spent at Michigan Technological University studying Civil Engineering.
With all the time spent in the classroom, I heard numerous teachers, peers and alumni say how different the real world is compared to what they teach you in school. After my second year, I was prepared to find that experience and what better way than with an internship. I accepted an internship offer with RailWorks Track System’s Central Region Office in Lakeville, MN. I heard it was a great company to work for if you wanted to acquire hands-on experience in the railroad construction industry, which is exactly what I was looking for. The Spring semester ended and my real learning experience began.
What results did you achieve on the internship, and how did you exceed the company's expectations for your role?
Going into the internship I didn’t know what my role was going to be. I knew that interns in the construction industry were nothing like interns in movies, getting coffee for their bosses. Construction interns were expected to provide value to the company and gain experience in the “real world”. When I was hired, they told me that I would get out of the internship what I wanted. So I chose to do what I knew would help me get the most out of my short 3 and a half months as an intern and work in the field.
I spent the first month and a half in Chamberlain, South Dakota working on a 40 mile track reconstruction project. When I stepped onto the project, I knew very little about constructing a railroad. The first day I got there, the Project Engineer, put me in charge of the 37 road crossings that needed to be replaced. I started calling the subcontractors for the asphalt, road closure signs, ballast and surrounding businesses. I was thrown into the project with little knowledge so I had to learn fast. By the time the first road crossing was being switched out, I had it down. That was my role for the rest of my time in South Dakota.
Once I left South Dakota, I headed to RailWork’s office in Fremont, Nebraska where I spent time with other Project Engineers. One happened to be an intern for the same company a couple years prior and now works full time. We were discussing the differences between what I was doing as an intern and what he did. Being in charge of the road crossings, the Project Engineer in South Dakota gave me a more important task than he ever received as an intern. He was impressed that I was able to stay on top of it when I had no prior experience.
When I wasn’t dealing with road crossings, I spent most of my time with the production gangs changing out the track. I would jump in and do every little thing I could to make the guys’ days a little bit easier. After some time, it became clear to me that that was not expected from me. They were extremely appreciative when I did something as simple as helping spread out materials on the track. Once I got to know the guys better, they told me how that I stood out from the majority of the other “college kids” because I didn’t stand around and watch them work, I jumped in and motivated them to keep up their good work.
After not knowing what I was expected to do as an intern, I created my own role in the field. I did whatever I could to be productive at all times and made sure I got the hands on experience I wanted.
What did you learn in this internship that will affect your life in a positive way?
On a daily basis, I would work with the different levels of people on a typical job site. I’d spend time with Project Engineers, Foreman, Operators, Laborers, Project Inspectors, Truck Drivers and various other subcontractors. I had the opportunity to create close relationships with these people and hear what they like and dislike about their experiences with their coworkers. They taught me more about who I should be. I know that chances are, I don’t know more than the guy that worked in the industry for 20 or even 5 years just because I went to college. I learned most people will be more willing to be productive for me when they know I appreciate the work they do. And it was also made clear the absolute importance of good communication. It all seems like common sense, but I saw many cases where it wasn’t applied. By seeing the majority of sides to the railroad construction industry, I got to form my own opinion of who I want to be in the construction world so I am able to cooperate with everyone involved.
While I spent more time with them, one major thing I noticed all my coworkers had in common was pride in their job. The general public knows that construction jobs are not necessarily easy jobs. If you’re a laborer, you’ll end up spending the majority of your time outdoors whether it’s hot, raining or snowing. The engineers can spend their time in the office stressing out over whether the design will work or if it will be able to be finished on time. Everyone in the construction industry will have their daily challenges. I watched many new-hires quit because they couldn’t handle the work they were given. So the people that do push through it and strive in the industry, deserve to have some pride in what they accomplish every day. This internship gave me that pride. I know that once I graduate college and continue working in the construction industry, I will be able to handle what I am given and I will be proud of what I am doing with my life.
How were you involved with safety and/or quality during your internship, and how did that change your perspective on construction?
The first week of my internship was spent in the office working jumping between a Project Engineer, a Project Estimator and the Head of the Safety for the Central Office. He took me through the basic “new-hire orientation” that they have all laborers go through. On top of that, he had me spend some extra time looking through some “near-misses” that occurred in the past year. It gave me a better understanding of the most common hazards on a job site. I noticed a major issue was from people tripping and falling.
When I first began working in the field, I spent the majority of my time working with the In-Field Safety guy. He got me in the habit of finding ways of helping the guys avoid hazards, like moving tools off to the side to avoid tripping over them. Throughout the rest of my internship, he kept me updated on issues he was having with the guy’s poor safety habits and how he does his best to stay on top of it. Their goal was to make it clear to me the importance of safety, and they definitely accomplished that.
During my time as an intern, I witnessed the aftermath of 3 accidents. One major thing I noticed is: in the rail and construction industry in general, there is no such thing as a minor accident. The majority of the time, when something occurs, someone is in the emergency room. And the majority of the time, it is something that is preventable. It takes time to look at the cause of the incident and it takes many opinions to figure out the best way to prevent the accident in the future.
On top of keeping the workers safe, you also need to make sure your project is safe for the user once it is completed. You wouldn’t want to build a bridge poorly and have it collapse. That’s when the importance of quality comes in. I had the opportunity to join one of our quality control crews. They go through and make sure every piece of the railroad is put together correctly to prevent future derails. Construction jobs usually consist of projects that needs to be finished in a timely manner and when things are put together quickly, there is a high chance of mistakes being made. That is why things need to be checked thoroughly so the client and users are happy with the product. Quality and safety are both extremely important parts at any job site.
After reviewing www.IBuildAmerica.com, tell us what I Build America means to you?
In second grade, I drew a picture of the future me and underneath it said something along the lines of “I want to be a doctor because I want to help people”. I still have the same goal for my future: to help people. By second grade, I had already had it pounded in my head that becoming a doctor is the best way to help people. When I was a junior in high school and I realized that I’m not a fan of hospitals, I decided becoming civil engineer would be a great idea. A friend asked me how I changed my mind so quickly after having it set for a decade that I was going to be a doctor. I told her that my goal has always been to do find a career that I could use to make a positive difference in the world, so I chose one. Doctors receive credit for helping people, and they do deserve it, but what about the men and women in construction? They make sure the doctor’s have roads to get to work and safe hospitals to work in; there’s a way to transport goods to our grocery stores; there’s clean water in our homes. Every one in the construction industry is doing their part to help out the public. That is something to be proud of.
This has been an idea in my head since I made that decision my junior year of high school, then I read: “I Build America (IBA) is a movement dedicated to showing the importance of construction to our modern life so that the people in construction take pride in the value they bring, the general public recognizes that value, and young people learn what a purposeful and rewarding career in construction can be.” If I had I Build America telling me the importance of working in construction, I’m sure I would have drawn a more accurate picture of the future me when I was in second grade. I Build America means that the people of construction will get the recognition they deserve and will spread the pride in what they do. It will help bring students with lots potential and help boost the construction industry.