Mentoring in Monroe: An Interview on NJDOT’s Commitment to Communities

As a part of the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT)’s Commitment to Communities, three Monroe Township High School students received assistance with their senior capstone project from NJDOT Bureau of Research (BoR) research scientist, Dr. Giri Venkiteela. The capstone project was undertaken as a part of the Project Lead the Way program which seeks to incorporate hands-on STEM projects into primary and secondary education across the country. The specific aim of these students’ project was to improve the processes for pothole repair in the area. Maintenance of roadways with potholes is an important aspect of transportation infrastructure particularly because potholes can grow or crack and damage roads further if left unresolved.

The students employed a survey of local residents to investigate the relative state of road conditions in Monroe and familiarized themselves with research relating to road maintenance and design. They engaged with subject matter experts from Rutgers University, the BoR, and other stakeholders who helped the students hone the depth and direction of their capstone. We spoke with Dr. Venkiteela about this mentorship process and what the future may hold for this project and the team behind it.


Q. What is your role at the NJDOT’s Bureau of Research? How did BoR and NJDOT become involved in mentoring the Monroe Township High School students?

Project Lead the Way capstones at Monroe Township High School Source: Courtesy of NJDOT Bureau of Research

Project Lead the Way capstones at Monroe Township High School. Courtesy of NJDOT Bureau of Research.

I am a research scientist and a subject matter expert (SME) in structural design, technology transfer, and pavement materials among other areas at the NJDOT Bureau of Research. The students reached out to the NJDOT Commissioner by email to request help because they were trying to find solutions to a transportation issue – pothole repair. The Commissioner then assigned me to coordinate with the students and engage with other relevant SMEs to lend assistance. We had a couple of back and forth meetings to get the students connected, and that is how everything started.

Q. To what degree did mentoring Monroe high school students with their Project Lead The Way engineering capstone reflect the Bureau of Research’s mission?

It is the mission of the Bureau, and of the state-wide Department, to help communities, students, universities, and the wider public engage with transportation topics. Beyond the innovations and assistance that such engagements yield back to us as an organization, it is our aim to benefit residents and stakeholders as much as possible. Mentoring the Monroe high school students reflects this aspect of the agency’s “Commitment to Communities” and helps cultivate the next generation of engineers.

Q. Could you describe the capstone project the students undertook?

The students produced a survey targeted to local drivers about the state of potholes in the Monroe area. The students also spoke with individuals, agencies, and local organizations in order to come up with solutions to improve pothole repair processes. The students combined the quantitative information from their survey with more qualitative interviews from key stakeholders and SMEs for their final presentation and capstone project.

Project Outcomes

Q. We understand that you helped get the students in touch with Rutgers and NJDOT SMEs in mentoring these students. Could you describe that mentoring? In what ways did this mentoring encourage, direct, or otherwise support their project?

Beyond facilitating the students’ contact with experts, NJDOT and I helped them sharpen the focus and direction of their project. After they designed and conducted their survey, for instance, we asked them to come up with the three core ideas they might want to explore further. The SMEs and I looked at these ideas, and we provided additional feedback and comments on them, so the students could make a final decision on how to proceed with the project.

Research Project Manager, Dr. Giri Venkiteela, with the three Monroe Township High School Students. Courtesy of NJDOT Bureau of Research

The students definitely aimed high with their project, but I would say part of the mentoring process was supporting their ambitions with advice on the practical, feasible side of the capstone that could lead them to successfully carrying out their vision. We found there was a fine line between providing this type of feedback and not discouraging the students. I also tracked their progress to make sure I could offer support as they moved along with their project.

Q. What were some of the most interesting findings from the students’ capstone/survey?

The students originally wanted to eliminate the potholes that can form in asphalt roads by using concrete slabs equipped with sensors. As the students imagined it, these sensors would detect cracks or physical depressions occurring in the roads’ concrete and report it for repair. When the SMEs and I reviewed their idea though, we made them aware that it is not practical to use concrete in all of the roads that we might be interested in because of freezing and thawing and other conditions affecting the roads. Their ideas might be applied to smaller road sections or local roads. The students learned why roads are built out of the materials they are: this kind of learning was interesting to engage with.

A large pothole forming cracks in the surrounding surface of a road. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

All the same, I would say placing the sensors in the pavement itself was a very interesting idea. It is a good, creative approach that was interesting to discuss for their capstone.

Q. What are your thoughts on the educational benefits of capstone projects for secondary education or beyond? In what ways do you feel the capstone might have benefited the students’ academic and professional development?

Beyond the outcome of a capstone project itself, these types of projects facilitate critical thinking. Exposure to a large organization like NJDOT and the practical side of engineering problem solving will help their career and intellectual development wherever they go or whichever field they specialize in. The hands-on experiences of coming up with solutions to specific problems, prototyping, and working in labs are incredibly valuable.

Flyer describing the Capstone team’s project, “The Pothole Solution Project”, and contacts
Source: Courtesy of NJDOT Bureau of Research

One of the most important things I saw personally was that the students are very interested in their presentation skills. I was so impressed, actually; I can imagine once they reach the college or postgraduate level, they will be able to express their thoughts and findings remarkably well. That aspect of their development is core to becoming a scientist, engineer, educator, or who knows. There are so many things they will be able to choose from with the skills fostered by this educational process.

Next Steps

Q. What are the next stages for their project and its findings? Have any public or nonprofit entities (such as local governments, NJDOT, or neighborhood groups) taken notice of it?

Absolutely, in a certain sense the NJDOT has already taken interest with my involvement. For high school students working on a project like this, however, the next steps are complicated since we do not know if they are going to specialize in college in computer science, civil engineering, materials engineering, etc. If we were certain the students were going into civil engineering with their academic and professional futures, we could endeavor to keep them in the loop, but having spoken to the students, their interests and futures are likely to be varied. One is heading into environmental studies for a college major, another will be a computer sciences major, and one will do civil engineering.

We definitely encourage them to continue reaching out to us with their ideas with pothole repair — it is a major issue within transportation. Though it is, of course, impossible to eliminate one hundred percent of potholes, the next generation will come up with the solutions to this wider concern.

Q. Do you think it may prompt or support future studies/capstones?

Though the current students are graduating from high school and going in their own directions for college, next year’s students could continue this project and the progress these students have achieved. I could see friends of different graduating years passing on some of the efforts from previous capstones and building on one another. NJDOT, and I personally, would be glad to participate in future capstone projects and to serve the broader community in this way.

Exploring Strategic Workforce Development in NJ: An Interview with the Associated Construction Contractors of New Jersey

FHWA is promoting Strategic Workforce Development in highway maintenance, construction and operations.

FHWA is promoting Strategic Workforce Development in highway maintenance, construction and operations.

Strategic Workforce Development, an FHWA Every Day Counts (EDC) Round 6 innovative initiative, anticipates collaboration between government agencies, trade organizations, private agencies and communities to prepare individuals for the construction workforce. The demand for workers in highway maintenance, construction and operations is growing, as is the demand for new skill sets required for work with emerging technologies.  An important element of this initiative is the recruitment and retention of women and minorities in the construction sector.  Through on-the-job training and supportive services program, NJDOT is exploring ways to work with contractors, contracting associations, and unions on shaping their future workforces, including programs aimed at increasing representation of women, minorities, and other disadvantaged populations in the construction and operations workforce.

Associated Construction Contractors of New Jersey (ACCNJ) is a construction trade association representing union construction companies, including highway, bridge, and vertical construction in the tri-state area and beyond, representing both small and larger companies. ACCNJ’s mission is to raise the standard of construction in New Jersey by providing a diverse array of training and educational programs and information for their membership. We spoke with Jill Schiff (Executive Director, Operations) and Darlene Regina (COO) to hear their perspective on pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs in New Jersey. 

ACCNJ provides education and training for member union construction companies.

ACCNJ provides education and training for member union construction companies.


Q. Is there a lack of awareness among women and minorities of jobs in the construction industry? Do you know of programs that are building awareness of opportunities in transportation?

People understand what construction is and that it is a necessity. They see a plumber or electrician working on their home, an addition going up on the neighborhood school or a group of craftworkers in a work zone widening a highway.  Being able to break down what they already know and being able to show them how many opportunities exist in the industry is where we need to meet them.

Union construction trades are progressive in attracting qualified applicants.  In addition to traditional avenues, they work with community groups, government entities, and school districts as a way to share information about their programs.  All construction trades do conduct outreach to women and minorities, as unions are open to all and labor management cooperatives work on increasing diversity.

The industry makes an effort to actively promote construction career opportunities through a variety of paths, individually and collectively. For example, the EAS Regional Council of Carpenters has a “Career Connections” program for high school students and “CARP” for women and minorities. Union jobs offer competitive pay and benefits, continuous training opportunities, and access to technology. Three- to five-year union construction apprenticeship programs are rewarding and valuable as they prepare participants for successful careers. Apprentices are learning skills while simultaneously earning a salary. There are nominal up-front fees for apprenticeships, such as union dues and/or application fees. Applicants are also required to hold a high school diploma or GED, a driver’s license, be drug-free, and be able to read for information and have math competency.

The annual Construction Industry Career Day offers information and hands-on learning to high school students.

On the collective side, ACCNJ oversees a Construction Industry Career Day, a two-day event for high school students, supported by the unions, various trade associations, and government agencies. The event started in 2001 and attracts about 3,000 people each year.  We advertise the event to every high school in the state, general, private and vo-tech. The event offers hands-on skills learning for different occupations in the field and students are able to talk to current apprentices. Parents and guardians are encouraged to join us so they can become aware of the diverse construction career paths. The next event is scheduled for May 31st and June 1st in 2022.

This NJ DOL program assists high school juniors and seniors to transition to high-skill, high-wage employment.

This NJ DOL program assists high school juniors and seniors to transition to high-skill, high-wage employment.

The New Jersey State Building and Construction Trades Council, which coordinates activity and provides resources to 15 affiliated trades unions in the construction industry, is involved in the New Jersey Youth Transitions to Work Program, a state-funded program promoting work-based learning and the establishment of linkages among secondary schools, post-secondary and registered apprenticeships. They also support the Helmets to Hardhats program designed to help transitioning military personnel pursue careers in the building and construction industry.


Q. What are the principal challenges for women and minorities to enter apprenticeship programs and the construction industry? 

This program helps veterans and other service people transition to career and training opportunities in the construction industry.

This program helps veterans and other service people transition to career and training opportunities in the construction industry.

The main challenges for women and minorities entering the field often relate to transportation and childcare. Reliable childcare is an especially significant barrier for female candidates.

Some individuals do not hold a valid driver’s license or have access to a vehicle, making it difficult or impossible to access job sites located far from their homes or in areas outside central cities where public transportation is limited.

New Jersey is a US Department of Labor (USDOL) apprenticeship state. Apprenticeship programs are audited by the US DOL annually and have to demonstrate certain percentages of women and minority members.


Q. You have worked with Sisters in the Brotherhood. It sounds like a successful program. Can you tell us about this?

Part of the Carpenters Union, Sisters in the Brotherhood provides advocacy and skills training for women.

Part of the Carpenters Union, Sisters in the Brotherhood provides advocacy and skills training for women.

Sisters in the Brotherhood is an international program supporting female members of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters.  They advocate for issues women face in the industry, teach educational leadership skills, and offer mentoring to retain and elevate women in the local unions.  The focus on fostering a kinship among female members and hold events to enable social interactions.

Sisters in the Brotherhood does have a role in apprenticeships, which varies by local area. Pre-COVID, they had a very successful 12-week course that focused on upgrading math skills and the ability to read for information, and on physical strength training which is necessary in the construction field.


Q. Can you tell us about the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) program that has similar supports?

LIUNA members work on highway construction projects.

LIUNA members work on highway construction projects.

LIUNA is one of the more diverse unions in the state. They offer membership affinity groups for networking, mentorship, and engagement to promote individual and professional development. They convene a woman’s caucus, an African American caucus, and a Latino caucus, and possibly others.


Q. Would you say there are any model practices currently among community-based organizations to support women and minority individuals looking at the construction trades?

Community-based organizations such as the Newark Alliance, Urban League in Essex County, Urban League of Camden County and the Edison Job Corps Center in Middlesex County teach skills, including soft skills, to help make individuals more employable and independent. These organizations are an important support to the trades in attracting women and minorities to the profession.


Q. What types of construction pre-apprenticeship programs are there in NJ?

Pre-apprenticeship programs are becoming more prevalent in New Jersey. These programs are valuable because they focus on preparing participants with the soft skills needed to succeed in the construction trades. Participants who complete pre-apprenticeship programs are still required to apply for apprenticeship programs.

For example, the Bricklayers have a 12-week pre-apprenticeship program. Laborers also had a pre-apprenticeship program in Jersey City but it was directed more to building laborers.

NJ DOL provides funding for apprenticeship and other training programs.

NJ DOL provides funding for apprenticeship and other training programs.


Q. Do you have any insights into the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development (NJDOL) apprenticeship programs, and the legislation behind them? Are any of the programs relevant to the highway construction trades?

Remember that NJDOL does not implement apprenticeships; however, they do have an Office of Apprenticeship that assists organizations with apprenticeships via grants and other opportunities.

As we said, pre-apprenticeship programs are becoming more common in the state. The NJ Office of Apprenticeship is offering funding to support these initiatives through their Growing Apprenticeship in Nontraditional Sectors (GAINS) and Pre-Apprenticeship in Career Education (PACE) programs.





Associated Construction Contractors of New Jersey

Federal Highway Administration, Every Day Counts Round 6, Strategic Workforce Development

Laborers International Union of North America

New Jersey Building and Construction Trades Council

NJ Department of Labor, Office of Apprenticeships

Sisters in the Brotherhood

KM Interview: Cross-Training in Construction Services

The NJDOT Knowledge Management Toolbox offers examples of several knowledge sharing practices that have been, or could be, adopted by agency units to retain knowledge in a unit in the face of illness, retirements or transfers to other units at NJDOT.

In early 2020, a survey was distributed to New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) subject matter experts (SMEs) to identify current technology transfer needs, including potential topics for research. The survey also explored the insights and experience of the SMEs related to the challenges of implementing research findings and addressing knowledge gaps within the organization to advance understanding of job responsibilities, policies and procedures.

Subsequently, we followed up with Keith Daniels, Manager, NJDOT Bureau of Construction Services in the Division of Procurement, and Gary Vetro, a Contract Administrator in that unit, to learn about how the unit uses cross-training in practice. 

For both of them, cross-training played a role in their introduction to the unit. Mr. Daniels offered that his earlier experience with cross-training led to his current position as Manager. While working in Equipment Materials and Supplies in Procurement, he had the opportunity to work, and be cross-trained, in several jobs in Construction Services. For several years, and in the absence of a Bureau Manager, he assisted the Director of Procurement in various tasks and functions in the Bureau. Prior to that, he had no experience in the procurement process for construction contracts. The Bureau staff were dedicated to getting the construction contracts out. As a result, he became familiar with every aspect of the unit and learning all the requirements of the Bureau.

Mr. Vetro came to the unit from another area in DOT and was cross-trained to cover for the individual who supervises the contract award process in the event that the individual took an extended leave. He brought his broader experience to the unit.

We interviewed Mr. Daniels and Mr. Vetro to explore any lessons learned, benefits and challenges of cross-training as a knowledge sharing practice.

Q. Can you describe cross-training for us?

Cross-training involves teaching an employee hired for one job responsibility, to perform the functions and skills of other job responsibilities within an organization. Cross-training is not tied to a specific skill set or educational background, but rather requires the desire to learn a new skill and the willingness to participate in new challenges.

Q. What prompted your unit to start cross-training?

There were already some elements of cross-training within the Division of Procurement as the Division Director supported cross-training over the years. Thus, previous experience with this concept has benefited the Division greatly.

In my [Daniels] present role, I inherited an office that formerly had over 25 staff members, and currently has nine (9) individuals, including myself, to perform the same basic functions. We are responsibly for awarding construction contracts for the state at an average of 100 contracts each year totaling $1.0 billion. The awarding of contracts is labor intensive and involves multiple administrative and technical steps. We are also responsible for reviewing and approving the pre-qualification applications of over 300 construction firms applying for renewal or new work type classifications to bid on our construction projects each year.

Although automation has improved the unit’s functioning over time, the staff members are required to learn other jobs and operate out of their sphere in order to provide coverage.  This is not mandatory, but a willingness by the staff to engage in “teamwork”. The staff consists of two (2) financial auditors, three (3) engineers, and four (4) administrative personnel. A new hire who has a background in business administration is assisting everyone in the unit and learning all functions in the Bureau.

Because of this willingness by staff to participate as a team, Construction Services has significantly reduced the need for overtime to the Unit.

Q. Do employees cross-train for a number of positions or just one other position? Are all employees cross-trained to other positions?
There are limitations when there are highly technical skill sets involved. The unit has engineers, and people with administrative and financial backgrounds. Someone with an engineering background could do some of the financial tasks, but would not be signing off on financial documents. Someone in data entry cannot train to do a job that requires engineering expertise. Still, they are able to learn some aspects of any job to assist when needed.

In small units, teamwork is essential and cross-training is a necessity. At times, everyone in our unit has to pull together to get the job done and staff has almost invariably been required to do work outside of their assigned job responsibilities.

Q. What schedule is followed for cross-training? How do people meet and learn? How much of an investment are they making?

The cross-training has been an informal process in the unit and is conducted as needed. At times, the Manager will introduce the idea, but also some staff members will initiate the training. We work as a team to get a big job done and everyone is contributing where they can.

Most training occurs during downtimes for the unit in July and December. Almost every unit has a seasonal cycle, so there is some downtime or slow times available for cross-training. Training involves a combination of direct instruction by the person who does the job, review of written procedures, and perhaps a practice exercise.

The time it takes for training is dependent on the employee, their abilities, how quickly they learn, and the task to be learned. The individual may learn the role in a couple of hours, a couple of days, or it may take longer. In one case, an employee was cross-training for data entry. The person whose position he was to train for was out so he was given the materials and he wrote the outline of job responsibilities and protocols so he can fill in if necessary. One is not training to be a master, just enough to get the job done while someone is out. Refresher training may take a couple of days. We might use a contract that has been completed and have the person training do it again as if they were responsible for it.

Frequency of retraining should be based on how often a backup might need to perform the function and the employee’s long term memory skills. If a person trained as a backup does not have to perform that function more than once or twice in a year, retraining will be more important than for a backup function performed once or twice a month.

Q. How do you prioritize roles for cross-training?

In our unit, every function should have some back-up. In general, you would look at which functions have time constraints or are important for other functions. These functions should be the first on the list for cross-training. You should have enough back-up personnel to keep the function running properly in case of unexpected staff shortfalls.

Consider which functions have only one person designated to perform them. Even if these are not primary functions, they may become a problem if the sole employee is out for an extended time.

Q. How has cross-training been valuable to the unit?

We are a small unit. It is critical for us to be able to continue work when staff is out of work, and especially during prolonged absences. As an example, we must ensure that there is adequate coverage for the contract award process, which accounts for 60 percent of our work.  We must ensure that there is adequate coverage to meet the contract schedules and adhere to state and federal regulations regarding the Department’s contracts.

Furthermore, most of the Bureau staff, both professional and administrative/technical, work out of title just to get the job done.  As a result, they have become proficient in other skills, engineering, financial, etc. that could mean job opportunities in other areas of the Department.

Cross-training can improve morale, increase productivity, and may lead to promotional opportunities. Sharing knowledge of other functions can help staff with attempts to advance and will lead to a greater willingness to cross-train. If someone can cross-train in another role, they may be able to apply for a higher position as they will have more knowledge and could possibly score higher on Civil Service Exams.  As long as there are possibilities, and opportunities for advancement, employees will find cross-training attractive.

It is essential that employees get the necessary tools to go beyond what they do on a day-to-day basis.

Q. What have been some of the challenges to implementing cross-training?

Employees may feel that they are being asked to do extra work without compensation, and some, particularly those coming from the private sector, may believe that they are training their replacement.  There needs to be communication to all employees about the benefits of cross-training to the unit, and the need to have someone who can fill in to meet the work requirements of the Unit.

Employees must be assured that the training is used only to cover for temporary staff shortages.  Staff will be more likely to accept the idea of cross-training if they can trust that their participation will not increase their workload. There may be some people who have a “not my job” attitude and might introduce Civil Service and union constraints. The nature of this program is to have individuals perform tasks beyond their usual work on a temporary basis which should not raise concerns. A more formalized program could address these issues.

Q. Do you think this strategy would be valuable to other units?

Yes. In the case of smaller units, there may be only one person (or if you are lucky, two persons) who know and can perform their job, so cross-training is essential. If the unit is large enough, there may be multiple people doing the same job. However, cross-training would still be of value to improve morale and increase possible promotional opportunities.

Q. Any other observations that you can offer?

Certainly, specific and detailed training procedures must be developed to encourage knowledge sharing within individual units so jobs can be performed successfully when there are worker shortages.  Each bureau or unit’s approach will be different; there is no “one-size-fits-all” way for getting cross-training done.

We recommend some best practices when using cross-training:

  • Ensure an employee’s regular job function is protected in some form
  • Provide clear communication about cross-training opportunities
  • Create a feedback mechanism to let employees know where they stand, obtain employee buy-in, and promote a willingness to participate.
  • Make clear that cross-training is voluntary
  • Work with what may be a select group of those employees willing to learn other tasks
    • Ensure that employee skill sets are commensurate with required skills
    • Establish a performance mechanism. This should be tied to the feedback procedure.
    • Ensure that cross-training is appropriate for the individual’s personal abilities.
  • Incorporate some aspect of mentoring, not necessarily formalized
  • If possible, ensure that whatever the employee is doing, they can do it in another unit. Promotional opportunities may lie elsewhere, so acquired skills should be generalized.

We are required to abide by specific state and federal regulations. We also have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure the health and safety of the public on the state’s roadways. The unit’s relationship with construction firms and awarding and executing contracts is critical to fulfilling that responsibility. We need to ensure that we are doing our job and cross-training has helped us with that mission.


Several state DOTs are employing cross-training as a tool to improve performance, respond to workforce transitions, and support a culture of innovation. Information about how cross-training and related knowledge management tools are being implemented at other DOTs can be found in the Appendix to National Cooperative Highway Research Project Scan 13-01: Advances in Developing a Cross-Trained Workforce.

Knowledge Management Toolbox, Cross-Training.  NJDOT Technology Transfer. Website. Retrieved at:


Professional Engineering Design Experience Program Launched at NJDOT – Provides Career Opportunities toward Licensure

NJDOT has launched the Professional Engineering Design Experience Program (PEDE) – an innovative initiative providing current NJDOT engineers with the opportunity to gain the required design experience necessary to achieve their professional engineering (PE) licensure. Engineers expressed the desire to remain with NJDOT and needed the ability to obtain a PE license to reach career goals. In launching the initiative, NJDOT recognized the need and responded to employees with the development of The Professional Engineering Design Experience Program (PEDE).

The PEDE program will offer engineering staff that have a bachelor’s degree in engineering from an accredited university, who do not currently have design responsibilities, the opportunity to work alongside a PE-licensed colleague to gain the design experience required to obtain their own PE license while remaining on the job at NJDOT. The PEDE program will build relationships between staff members as mentors and mentees who meet the program requirements as outlined in the PEDE Program Guidebook.


Mentees will have the opportunity to design projects such as: crash cushions; guiderails; pedestrian improvements such as sidewalks and ADA curb ramps; minor intersections improvements such as turn lanes, minor widening, corner cutbacks, signing and striping; sight distance issues/improvements; and minor drainage improvements through grading and re-profiling.

The program also creates leadership opportunities through mentorship. Having talented,committed leaders as mentors is critical to the success of the program. A good mentor will be a proven team player, have strong communication skills, and be a good instructor that is willing to encourage and support his or her mentee. Other requirements are outlined in the PEDE Program Guidebook. Employees can review the PEDE Program Guidebook on the NJDOT intranet.

Article adapted from the April 2019 Transporter, the NJDOT employee newsletter.