Talking Michigan Transportation

Building the future by recruiting a diverse work force, developing talent

July 28, 2021 Season 3 Episode 67
Talking Michigan Transportation
Building the future by recruiting a diverse work force, developing talent
Show Notes Transcript

On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, conversations about the past, present and future of 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, Greg Johnson, former MDOT chief operations officer and current member of the Michigan State Transportation Commission, talks about how the program was conceived eight years ago in collaboration with now-MDOT Director Paul C. Ajegba, who saw a need to form partnerships with higher education institutions and increase minority representation in transportation.  

The idea is to work with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to recruit and introduce underrepresented groups of students to transportation-specific career opportunities.  

Johnson also discusses his work now overseeing a project with the Oregon and Washington State DOTs to replace the bridge over the Columbia River.  

Later, James Jackson, strategy director for MDOT’s TDRP, talks about the satisfaction he gains from working with students and the nearly 60 who participated this year. The department released a video July 27 featuring some of the students and highlighting the success of the program.  

Finally, we hear from TuKiya Cunningham, a student at Alabama A&M University, about her experience in this year’s TDRP program. The student interns get a wide variety of opportunities and she counts among her highlights working with engineers on the I-75 Modernization project, which includes an innovative drainage tunnel.

Podcast photo: James Jackson and Tukiya Cunningham at MDOT's TDRP Intern Showcase.


Jeff Cranson: Hello. This is the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson, director of communications at the Michigan Department of Transportation.


Cranson: This week, I’m speaking with three people who offer past, present, and future perspectives on MDOT’s Transportation Diversity Recruitment Program, an initiative launched eight years ago to recruit and develop talent by offering internships to students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities. First, I’ll be speaking with Greg Johnson, a former chief operations officer at MDOT, who, along with now-MDOT Director Paul Ajegba, was instrumental in conceiving the program. Next, I’ll talk with James Jackson of MDOT, who is the coordinator and helps keep the program going. And then lastly, I’ll speak with TuKiya Cunningham, who is one of this year's interns and she talks about her experiences.


Cranson: Our first guest is Greg Johnson, who is a former chief operations officer at MDOT and was instrumental in conceiving and launching the TDRP program about eight years ago. He and now-Director Paul Ajegba were kind of involved in the, I guess, infancy of this. So, Greg, thanks for taking time to do this, and can you talk about you know how this idea came to be?

Greg Johnson: Jeff, it is my pleasure. The now-Director Paul Ajegba was a region engineer, and we were looking at the scarcity of diversity coming into the department. So, Paul had the ideal of partnering with Historically Black Colleges and Universities along with some of the Michigan universities here who also are experiencing that same diversity issue in their ranks, both in the undergrad and graduate levels. We saw a natural partnership, and, once again, it's a benefit. The students get experience, they get to earn some money, but they also get exposed to the DOT, and they also get exposed to the fine universities here in the state of Michigan.

Cranson: So, you and I talked about this, and I will talk more about later with James Jackson, who coordinates the program, is the idea that first and foremost we'd like these people to, you know, decide to make Michigan their home, whether it's MDOT or, you know, somewhere else that they want to work in engineering and transportation engineering, but even if they don't this is giving them experience that they'll carry on somewhere in transportation, you know, somewhere in the country. So, either way we've done a good thing to promote diversity and develop talent. What do you think long-term, you know, how would you measure success long-term, I guess is my question?

Johnson: I think the long-term success is that we do have more people interested in in transportation careers, a more diverse population who wants to be involved in transportation. But the worst-case scenario is that we are creating a more educated transportation consumer, and that in itself is tremendously important in today's day and age to make sure folks know how important transportation. Even if they don't join the DOT, they understand how the DOT works, some of the challenges of the DOT world. Yeah, there's just so many benefits to it that we're going to benefit from it no matter how, whether they join the DOT or not.

Cranson: Well, that's a really good point about viewing it as a consumer, and I think that the added benefit is them sharing their experiences as they talk to maybe non-minority mentors and other people in engineering who haven't had their experiences, especially as we focus more on social equity and social justice and, you know, the inequities over the century that played out in transportation facilities. For instance, you know, what we're trying to do now with I-375, so hearing from them and hearing firsthand about their experiences, I mean, it cuts both ways, right?

Johnson: It does and having folks who can speak intelligently to these issues that plagued DOTs in our early days so they don't get repeated going into the future, folks who can talk about their experience with transportation issues and the lack of equity is tremendously important.

Cranson: So, going forward, talk about your experience when you ran the State Highways Department in Maryland and what we're doing. Not that I’m pitting Maryland against Michigan but, you know, how progressive would you say MDOT is in terms of programs like this and what the department is doing to encourage, you know, more diversity and talent recruitment?

Johnson: So, Jeff, one of the things you will hear in the DOT world across the country is an emphasis on equity and an emphasis on climate. My experience in Maryland, Maryland had a very diverse DOT, but it would it came because they are in a very diverse region of the country. So, they did not have to go through the number of efforts to garner that diversity, so I consider Michigan DOT as one of the most creative DOTs, especially given the lack of resources that exist to do programs like this. So, currently I’m working for two DOTs out on the west coast, and the diversity level there is almost nil, especially at the entry level. So, I talked to them about what Michigan is doing and planting some seeds to say, “This is a good way to get a diverse pipeline coming into your organizations.” But I do give Michigan a lot of credit for the creative and innovative things they're doing to lead in this effort.

Cranson: So, talk a little bit, I guess, because of that, about your perspective and what you've gained in your threesome decades in transportation and your career trajectory from the City of Battle Creek to MDOT. Battle Creek, as you know, is my mom and several of my relative’s hometown, so it has a soft spot in my heart, and I know it still does for you. But could you talk about that and what you've seen in terms of changes?

Johnson: You know, I still love the City of Battle Creek. I lived there for almost 18 years, and I think that, you know, my beginnings at the Engineering Department of Battle Creek gave me a ton of perspective. They challenged me with doing some of everything. I think that's so valuable for young engineers not to get pigeonholed early in their career but to see a number of things and gravitate towards where your passion is at. Those are the things that I think make a rewarding career, and I wouldn't change one thing about mine. And that's what I talk to young folks entering this field is, you know, find the things you're passionate about and gravitate towards those. A lot of folks are interested in, you know, how much they get paid and the prestige that comes along, and those things will come but find your passion first.

Cranson: Yeah, that's good advice in any career. Well, good luck in what you're doing. Maybe talk a little bit about that before we close. What are you doing on those projects in the pacific northwest?

Johnson: So, it’s a challenge running a bi-state team composed of both Oregon DOT and Washington State DOT professionals, and we're trying to get a big bridge built over the Columbia River. The existing bridge is over 100 years old. It needs replacement, so we're looking at multi-modal solutions to get both high-capacity transit as well as modernizing that stretch of freeway, creating active transportation facilities across the rivers because of my background in problem-solving but also because this is a huge technical challenge. This is why I’m enjoying being a part of and enjoying leading the team that's going to get this over the finish line.

Cranson: Yeah, it does sound like a challenge. Well, thank you, Greg. I know you have a lot going on, so I appreciate you taking your time to share your perspective. Thanks again, Greg.

Johnson: Oh, you're very welcome, Jeff.

Narrator: Did you know that most work zone crashes are caused by inattentive motorists? It only takes a split second of distraction to dramatically change lives forever. The Michigan Department of Transportation reminds you to slow down, follow all signs, and pay attention when driving through work zones because all employees deserve a safe place to work. Work zone safety: we're all in this together.


Cranson: Okay, once again, we're back with another segment in this week's podcast, and now I’m pleased to be speaking with James Jackson, who has been MDOT's coordinator, point person, pretty much all things to all people when it comes to the Transportation Diversity Recruitment Program. James, thanks for taking time to do this, and could you tell me how you got involved in this program and how it's become a real kind of life's mission for you?

James Jackson: Okay, and, Jeff, thanks for having me today. I'm really happy to be here. How I got involved with this was I worked in the University Region as the YDMP coordinator, and I was privileged to be invited to a meeting with Greg Johnson, our past CEO, at that time a region engineer, Mr. Paul—Director Paul Ajegba, he's now our director, and also Mr. Derek Scott, who works at the University of Michigan in the Center for Educational Diversity and Outreach. So, we were brainstorming on the amount of students that are graduating with civil engineering degrees, and there was a large number of students but when you think about women and minorities there wasn't as many folks. So, we came together, brainstormed some ideas and it was brought up, “Hey, how about you join us in partnering to go visit Morehouse, Spelman, and Clark Atlanta?” which is commonly known as the Atlanta Universities Consortium, which happened to be HBCUs and—

Cranson: Explain what HBCUs are for the audience.

Jackson: So, HBCU is an acronym for Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Although it sounds like it's one-sided with only welcoming one demographic, believe it or not, if you do research, it is actually a diverse education institution. Twenty-two percent of the students are non-African American, so that means it's a welcoming environment to anyone that wants to pursue schooling there.

Cranson: And I think there's another acronym. Explain to the audience what YDMP is.

Jackson: YDMP is an innovative program that we have here at MDOT. It stands for Youth Development Mentoring Program. This program is developed for students 16 and up, high school ages through college, where we expose them to a variety of career opportunities in transportation.

Cranson: Okay, so, going back to its origins and, you know, how this program, TDRP, was conceived as just kind of another leg of a stool for recruitment and development of youth and, really, recruiting and developing talent for transportation and trying to look ahead, how do you measure success for the program?

Jackson: How we measure success for the program, we have two lenses that we're looking at, okay? We're looking first and foremost, we're here in the state of Michigan, we're looking at statewide in which we're hoping to bring students with intel—excuse me, talent into the state of Michigan with new ideas that could actually participate in work along our infrastructure. Now, from a national perspective, we also have goals of measurement where we know here at MDOT that we do a really good job of leading in transportation, and we want to make sure that we're able to help develop and equip the best future civil engineers and otherwise into the workforce. So, how we measure success is by how many students are interested in either moving to Michigan and applying for the opportunities we have to work or continuing in the field of transportation. It's very important across the country that as we continue to grow, and our infrastructure becomes aged that we have talent that represents all demographics that's able and ready to get to work.

Cranson: Yeah, I think that priority is very well placed that we need the workforce and the people who are planning these projects and doing the outreach and deciding, you know, what needs to be done because transportation touches all of us. And we need that demographic to represent the communities that they serve, so that's what you're trying to do, obviously. How do you think that that you've done over the years in terms of growing the program and, you know, generating that kind of interest that you're looking for?

Jackson: Well, I’ll tell you that, and I have to lead with this, I always tell folks that education gets you to the door and experience gets you through the door. Us being a portal for experience, we started eight years ago with four students, and we've had overwhelming response across the country to be part of our program. And this year we set a target goal for 60 students, and we actually had 60 but one person dropped out, so we left it at 59. I would call that success because it's not a focus on quantitative growth, it's qualitative. We want to provide the best and most quality programs that equip young students to be able to be aware of the needs and demands for talent in the workforce. And by giving people hands-on experiences, teaching them critical social skills such as executive function and self-regulation, it really helps provide top candidates that will one day be hopefully employed at MDOT or anywhere among the private or any of the agencies that support transportation.

Cranson: What are some of the rewards, I guess, that you get out of doing this? I mean, even before you find out the end result and who decides that they want to pursue a career in civil engineering, specifically in Michigan but just, you know, during those weeks where the kids are in the program and you're watching them move around and work in different fields and gain different experiences. What is it about it that, you know, really gives you satisfaction?

Jackson: I’ll tell you I didn't have many opportunities when I grew up. To be honest with you, I didn't even know what a civil engineer was growing up, you know, until I began to work here at MDOT. One of the things that helps me is I get a chance to self-actualize. I can say I’m a veteran of the workforce and I know what students need, so I’m able to put them in situations that will help provide them their best opportunity to land a job and keep a job.

Cranson: That's great. Can you talk, not so much I guess in terms of names, but just talk about some of the kids that you remember that really left a mark for you?

Jackson: Well, that's pretty easy for me. One of the things I pride myself in is being a good connector. A lot of folks try to network, but my hope is to net weave, building a root system among talent that even if I don't have an opportunity to inform at the time that I can reach out to some folks I know to share, you know, what's available. So, one thing, one person in particular is this year's EDP. MDOT has an Engineer Development Program. That's another acronym for you.

Cranson: Appreciate you explaining that.

Jackson: Yeah, you know, so just one in particular I met happened to be a female intern. I met her about four years ago, and she wanted to apply for the program the first year, but she waited a little too late. I stayed in touch with her. I end up meeting her family, staying engaged with her and guess what? Four years later she'll be starting with MDOT in August. Also, there are young people that reach out to me asking if they can get letters or simply asking advice on do I think moving to a certain status is a good opportunity, and I actually admire the trust that we built over that time.

Cranson: Well, what else would you want people to know about the program and how it's become, you know, your passion and I guess why this is important investment in the future, you know, for our state and for transportation departments across the country?

Jackson: Now that's a big question there, but I’ll start with saying the Michigan Department of Transportation TDRP program is definitely developing into a hub to find excellence in talent. But what I want folks to know is that our program highlights the impact of the diversity and inclusiveness that our department is committed to. We understand that diversity is much more than an outer appearance. There is diversity in thought, diversity in work style, and just the perception that one might have in looking at one project than another may have. I am confident that as we continue to build and grow this program, we'll continue to be able to lure students to the possibilities for education, post grad education in the state of Michigan, as well as learning how to be strong and how to engage with the team that's been set up already in our workforce. The thing about people here in Michigan is we really care about others, you know, and it's not trying to lure somebody here to feel like they're in a resort, but we want to make sure that the high technology opportunities that we're currently working in such as connected vehicle research, some of the changing infrastructure due to our four seasons, and also just our commitment to making sure that we serve every constituent that travels any mode of transportation, whether it be roadway or non-motorized trails that we want to give them our best and we want to show that we're all inclusive in everything we do.

Cranson: Well, thanks, James. That's very well put, and congratulations on another successful program and a really good crop of students, one of whom, TuKiya Cunningham, I will be speaking with later in the podcast. So, thanks again and keep up the good work.

Jackson: Okay, and, Jeff, can I say one quick thing?

Cranson: Absolutely.

Jackson: I just want to mention, last but not least, team is very important. There was a whole team of individuals that made this program be successful. If I was to mention them by name that would be a challenge, but I want to let the team I want to let the people know that it takes a whole team of individuals to be successful, and I’m happy that we have that here at MDOT.

Cranson: Yeah, absolutely. Well, thank you again, James.

Jackson: All right. Thank you, Jeff.

Narrator: The Michigan Department of Transportation reminds you that when a vehicle collides with another vehicle, person, or other object it is a crash, not an accident. By reducing human error, we can prevent crashes and rebuild Michigan roads safely.


Cranson: Okay, we're back, as promised, I am with TuKiya Cunningham, who is a student that actually went through the TDRP program and can give us a first-hand account of what it was like and what she's learned and what she hopes for the future. TuKiya, thanks for taking time to talk to us about this. Could you just start with a little bit of background on yourself, where you go to school, and how you got interested in this program?

TuKiya Cunningham: Well, my name is TuKiya Cunningham. I am a graduating senior at the Alabama Agriculture and Mechanical University in Huntsville, Alabama. This is my fifth year in school. I am majoring in civil engineering with a minor in mathematics, and this is my first year with the TDRP program.

Cranson: And what—let's start, you know, going back to when you decided to go to college, and have you always been interested in civil engineering or in engineering in general?

Cunningham: No, actually I decided around a few weeks before graduation that I was going to do engineering. I was always great in math and my teacher told me, “Don't waste it on just anything.” I wanted to go to school for psychology, honestly. She was like, “You have the skills. You should look more into it and there is so much money,” and I was like, “Okay.” And I always had A's in math and she was like, “Don't waste those skills.” So, I started looking into engineering and as I was researching, I noticed civil engineering, and I always said that I would make my dad proud. My dad always wanted his own construction business, so that just pushed me further and I was like, “Well, if I do civil, I can focus on construction,” and that's been my main goal.

Cranson: Oh, that's very nice. So, your teacher encouraged you not to not to waste your skills with math, so being in this program where you've gotten some real-world experience doing a variety of different things has made you even more interested. Is that fair to say?

Cunningham: Yes, it has given give me real life experience and it's made me more excited about actually owning my own business. And I have been saying all summer that I can't wait to go back and talk to my teacher and tell her, “Thanks so much for pushing me to do this because I honestly was head-on stuck on psychology.” Always since I was a little girl I wanted to go to school for psychology, and I still get a chance to help people in a sense, if that makes sense as well as doing something that I’m passionate about.

Cranson: Well, you'll find out if you own your own business and you employ people that there'll be plenty of psychology mixed in with your engineering.

Cunningham: That's true.

Cranson: So, talk about what you did in the program, what your, you know, in the field experiences were.

Cunningham: This experience started off as a 10-week experience for me, and in those first 10 weeks I can say I have experienced so much stuff that I did not expect. First, I started off in the field. I'm working out of the MDOT field office, the I-75 segment three project. I’m working with Mark Dubay, Ken Hobert and Mr. John Eschmann. They made sure that I’ve done absolutely everything that I asked for. I've been inside the tunnel. I’ve inspected all across the roadway. I’ve inspected the bridges, the walls, mainline, everything that I’ve asked for. I’m also in the office this week getting some experience and some training on different things in the office, working on structural work and ITS. So, it's been it's been one of the most amazing experiences. I’ve seen things that I did not expect. Every day was something different for me. I can't say I’ve gotten bored or it's getting to a point where I’m doing the same thing over and over. Every day it was a different test.

Cranson: Well, that's very cool because you happen to be on the ground getting some experience with one of the most innovative things that the department has done in years. As you know, you happen to be here during this period of these torrential downpours in Metro Detroit that caused all kinds of flooding throughout the city and closed the freeways, and that drainage tunnel that you're talking about is an incredible innovation that will prevent that from happening, at least on that portion of I-75. It could be a model, you know, where it's applicable, for other freeways. So, talk a little bit about what you've learned about that tunnel.

Cunningham: The tunnel I was able to do a tour on. I learned the different—I learned a lot about the machine, where the machine comes from, how it's made, what its exact purpose is. I’ve also learned how to how the tunnel is being put together. I know that the tunnel is, like, 100 feet below ground, and I know it's under production for 24 hours except on every other Saturday for maintenance. I was able to actually see the segments to see how the earth is being dug out piece by piece and see how the machine is actually going into everything. When I went in—

Cranson: This is the boring machine that's actually making the tunnel, right?

Cunningham: Yes, sir. It's a tunnel boring machine. I can't remember exactly where the machine is from, but I know they named it Eliza. It's going to go two miles south, and then they're going to take it out and put it back in where they entered it the first time at I-696. It's going to go two miles south, and they're going to leave it in once they get south because the machine has been through so much that it would be better off getting a new machine than it would be to repair it.

Cranson: Yeah, interesting. Well, what else besides that? That's enough in itself because, like I said, it's one of the most innovative and probably one of the most futuristic things that the department has done trying to come up with a way to not only drain the water but store the water until it has a place to go, until the tributaries aren't so overflowing that they can take the water. But what else have you worked on, and have you enjoyed?

Cunningham:  I can say that since I’ve been here two of the nights, I was work able to work overnight shifts. The first one was bridge deck pouring. I saw the pedestrian I-75 bridge at Browning and also the 13 Mile bridge be poured. That was too exciting an experience because I have never experienced anything like that. I didn't know how or why. I did learn that bridges are poured overnight due to controlled temperatures, low traffic. I also was able to see a bridge demolition at 11 Mile around July 10. So, that was exciting for me because I’d never seen a bridge be torn down. I mean it wasn't explosive, but it was still interesting to see.

Cranson: So, both sides, you get to see a bridge blown up and you get to see a bridge being built.

Cunningham: Yes.

Cranson: So, you can just get both ends of the equation. That's great. Well, what would you say to other kids like when you go back to Alabama, and you talk to, you know, friends and students about—how would you be an ambassador for engineering, specifically transportation engineering, and why you think it's important and rewarding?

Cunningham: I definitely would say that I have been excited just driving through Michigan seeing the different work. Now that I’m interned and I’m understanding why this is the way it is and how it's happening. So, it's very exciting because you get to—I think as I get older, I would be excited to tell my kids, “Hey, you know, that's done because of this” or, “You know, this is done like this,” because it's very amazing to me. When I first came to Michigan, and I got on the I-75 project there was literally nothing. There a few barrier walls and that was it. Now it's an entire road there, all the barrier walls are up, they’re putting up noise walls, I’ve seen bridges be put up, and it's just totally different from when I first got here. And I’m amazed that they made a completely different scenery within, like I said, a 10-week program. I’m thankful that I was able to extend my internship, and I definitely can say TDRP was a life-changing process for me.

Cranson: Well, Director Ajegba and Greg Johnson, the former chief operating officer at the department, conceived this program several years ago and, you know, had a vision for how it could help is a recruitment to get, you know, talented kids like yourself interested in engineering. James Jackson has, you know, implemented and been the facilitator of the program for all these years. The idea, obviously, is that, you know, we'd like to recruit young talent like yourself to ideally stay in Michigan, but if you end up working in transportation somewhere else, we've still done a good thing, you know, for the transportation industry. What did you hear from your fellow interns about the program and about, you know, the possibility of deciding to come and work in Michigan?

Cunningham: I myself actually interviewed yesterday with MDOT for the EDP program, so I am looking into Michigan. I have heard other interns talk about how a lot of us hasn't been to Michigan and we've enjoyed it. Like I said, the program, with them paying for everything and still paying us, it took a lot of stress off of us and still giving us the opportunity that some of us wouldn't have had or would have had to focus on being closer to home. So, it took me being a close-minded person on where I want to live, and it opened my mind to see that there are opportunities elsewhere, even greater opportunities, outside of Alabama. You just have to explore and have more of an open mind and don't limit yourself into what you want to do.

Cranson: That's good advice for everybody. Well, thank you, TuKiya, and good luck with the EDP program and, whether you end up ultimately in Michigan or working in transportation owning your own company somewhere else, you know, I think you'll be someone to keep an eye on. So, thank you for taking time to talk.

Cunningham: Thank you very much.

Cranson: Thank you again for listening to this week's edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I would like to thank Randy Debler and Corey Petee for engineering this week's podcast. To subscribe to show notes and more, go to Apple podcasts and search for Talking Michigan Transportation.