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Highway Instrument Training School launched DOT careers

When funding for the Interstate Highway System was secured in 1956, the push was on for states to begin grading and paving the very next spring. According to a paper submitted to the County Engineers’ Conference held in December 1956, Iowa Highway Commission Personnel Engineer James Hoag said Iowa’s 1957 construction program was expected to almost quadruple the highway plan of 1955.

During this time period a shortage of qualified highway engineers was being felt around the country. With the additional work brought by the interstate, Hoag said some state departments were as far as five years behind in the design of plans for appropriations that were already available. In Iowa, cooperation between Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) and the Iowa Highway Commission provided a training school for technicians to alleviate the pinch in our state. While the school stressed that the participants were not going to be trained engineers, the engineering work they would be able to complete would free up a great deal of time for the professional engineers on staff.

The first highway instrument training school, called “Road Scholars” by some, was held in early 1956. In planning the 10-week session, six assistant resident engineers were chosen and enthusiastically accepted the responsibility to teach the course to be held at Iowa State. The six were brought to Ames in advance to learn methods of adult instruction.

Once the instructors were ready, it was time to select candidates for the school. Each resident engineer chose several employees to take the entrance exam for the program. Arithmetic, clerical speed, mechanical aptitude and written expression were tested in 116 men (there were no women in the field offices at that time). Upon grading those tests, 64 men were notified of acceptance to the school. From the 64, some had as little education as sophomore status in high school. Others had some college experience, but most were high school graduates with no additional training.

The course began by the men moving into the Memorial Union in Ames where they would live and study for the duration of the course. The Iowa Highway Commission paid full salaries and furnished meals, housing and transportation home each weekend. All reports are that morale among the men was very high. They seemed to fully understand that this was a chance for them to substantially increase their career potential without having to attend a full four years of college.

The group of 62 (one man dropped out following major surgery and another was disqualified for dishonesty) was divided into three subgroups, two sets of 20 men each and one set of 22 men. Two teachers were assigned to each group. Each instructor was to teach one-half of each day, leaving the other half for preparation and grading of work.

Classes included instruction on basic arithmetic and mathematics, followed by a three-day study of field trigonometry. All classes were based on field use and followed the procedures used by the Iowa Highway Commission to simulate on-the-job conditions, rather than delving into theory. The use of equipment such as levels, transits and other field work instruments was also covered by surveying points on the Iowa State campus. Field work of all types was taught, ranging from topography through centerline establishment, cross sections, setting of grades, simple curves, compound curves and spiral curves. In his paper, Hoag stressed that practical aspects of this training was the key. Teaching survey theory was not the intended purpose.

In his paper to the County Engineers’ Conference in 1956, Chester Wells, assistant resident engineer and one of the session’s instructors, wrote, “The presentation of new ideas to the men was at a rapid rate, and many subjects were returned to as time was available.”

Daily, seven hours of classes with two to five hours of homework were common. Wells wrote, “Within a period of 9 ½ weeks we crammed in a major part of three quarters of surveying. Most of the information would take five years field experience to come into contact with.”

While enthusiasm for the class ran high from both instructors and students, the real test of success would come in the field. Following completion of the first class, all six district engineers and 24 resident construction engineers were quizzed on the work of the graduates. Only one resident engineer returned a negative report. Upon investigation it was learned that instructions as to the qualifications of the graduate were not adequately conveyed to the engineer. He had given the graduate work to do that had not been presented in the class and so he failed in his assigned duties.

In the year following graduation, 10 of the 62 men were being used as instrumentmen, with little or no supervision. Two resident construction engineers stated they each had a graduate who was a better instrumentman than current, more experienced employees.

Of the remaining 52 men, 30 were working as assistant instrumentmen, which was the goal of the class in the first place. Of these 30, it was reported that 10 would likely be ready for a promotion in the next construction season. The least accomplished of the graduates were still very successfully working as inspectors and many becoming top inspectors, as the school also taught the reading of construction plans and preparation of construction reports. Many engineers commented that additional supervisory instruction would be needed for these men to advance further, since many of them were younger and lacked that element.

The class was continued at some level for the next five years. In a report to the county engineers in December 1959, Iowa Highway Commission Personnel Engineer Don Zierath said, “This course is not an amateur effort. It is a professional product and, as such, stands very high, we feel, in the field of technical training. The course material is reviewed annually and being improved by addition, deletion and shifting all the time.”

According to Zierath, part of this shift included the addition of four and one-half days devoted to inspection procedures and a full day for a trip to see projects in progress. During the process it was found that not all attendees were suited for survey work. Many had more aptitude as inspectors and the coursework was modified to cover a wider variety of topics to fill that need. It was thought the inspectors that came out of this class had much more rounded perspectives than did other inspectors because of their exposure to survey work.

Another point used to illustrate the value of this school is the low turnover rate of graduates. Zierath states that of the 250 current graduates, 203 were still on the payroll at the end of 1959, which he noted “is a lower turnover rate than any other single group of employees in our organization.”

Of the 203 employees who attended the program from 1956 to 1959, 88 had become inspectors, 75 were instrumentmen, 33 were party chiefs, and 7 were office workers. In a breakdown of those 47 graduates no longer on the payroll, 16 had left to attend college, 7 entered the military, 7 were terminated, and the other 17 resigned for various reasons.

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