Skills of the Trade: Asphalt Technologists Wanted

There are 2.2 million miles of roads and highways that criss-cross the United States. Chances are that you’ve never thought about the blacktop asphalt beneath your wheels as you drive across the country, the state or to your local grocery store.

Asphalt is, however, the obsession of Allen Miller, who works at the Cedar Mountain Stone Corporation in Culpeper, Virginia, as one of five apprentices learning industrial maintenance and the emerging discipline of “asphalt technology.” Under the tutelage of a mentor at the company, Miller spends his days learning how to operate the asphalt plant that operates 24-7 at Cedar Mountain’s vast quarry during construction season; how to formulate asphalt so that it can withstand 20 years of freezes, thaws and the weight of thousands of tractor-trailers every day, and how to test it so that the quality of the state’s roadways passes the standards of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).

“We have to have certain gradations of stone, the right amount of dust, and not too much asphalt binder in it,” said Ed Dalrymple, Miller’s boss and the fourth-generation owner of Cedar Mountain Stone Corporation. “If we have all of that in the right proportions, the road’s going to last.” Moreover, under VDOT’s pay-for-performance requirements, well-built roads earn a bonus, while inferior blacktop will cost the company penalties. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are potentially at stake, which means Dalrymple is counting on Miller to do his job right. On any given day, you might see Miller out drilling core samples from freshly laid road beds, watching the computerized control panels monitoring the moisture levels of asphalt being mixed at the plant or taking 20-pound samples of asphalt to the on-site laboratory for analysis.

Almost Half of New Jobs Require “Middle Skills”

Miller’s job may sound obscure, but it is one of millions of so-called “middle-skill” jobs – well-paying jobs that require post-secondary education and credentials but not a four-year degree – that have remained steadily in demand among employers. According to the National Skills Coalition, 48 percent of job openings between 2014 and 2024 will be “middle skill” jobs, in fields as varied as construction, health care, information technology and a host of other fields.

Globalization and the rise of technologies such as automation have ushered in myriad anxieties about worker displacement, stagnant wages, and the loss of low-skilled jobs. The steady presence of middle-skill jobs could prove a potent buffer against these worries. For one thing, many middle-skill positions are in fields that cannot be easily outsourced or automated, such as construction, or where demand is growing, such as health care, thanks to the aging of the Baby Boom generation.

Allen Miller
Allen Miller, an apprentice at the Cedar Mountain Stone Corp. in Culpeper, Virginia, monitors moisture levels at the company’s asphalt plant. How to formulate asphalt that will last on roads for decades is one of many skills Miller is acquiring as part of his apprenticeship.

But Less than Half of U.S. Workers are Trained Up to the Middle Level

Moreover, there is a shortage of workers with the right skills and training to fill all of the middle skill opportunities currently available. Despite the prominence of middle-skill jobs as a share of the economy, the National Skills Coalition also reports that just 43 percent of U.S. workers are trained up to the middle level. This means that thousands of U.S. workers are potentially missing out on opportunities to earn good wages and move ahead in their careers. At the same time, employers are losing opportunities to grow their businesses.

Promoting middle-skill jobs – such as through apprenticeships, dual enrollment at high schools and community colleges and employer-sponsored training – would not only help businesses find the workers they need, it would create new opportunities for workers to get ahead without requiring the time and financial commitment of a four-year degree that ultimately may or may not have market value. The U.S. federal government could also help create millions of new middle-skill jobs by passing an infrastructure bill, which President Donald Trump and both political parties agree should be a top priority. According to a 2017 report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure could create as many as 11 million jobs over the next 10 years while creating high demand for workers such as welders, “concrete strength-testing technicians,” construction managers, and construction health and safety technicians – all jobs that require a post-secondary credential but not necessarily a four-year degree.

Which takes us back to Allen Miller.

At the end of his four-year apprenticeship with Cedar Mountain Stone, Miller will hold a journeyman’s license in industrial maintenance as well as an associate’s degree from nearby Germanna Community College. In addition, he’ll hold a certificate in “asphalt technology” issued by the Virginia Asphalt Association, the trade association for the state’s road construction industry. He could stay at Cedar Mountain Stone or go elsewhere. Either way, he is destined to make a comfortable living that approaches six figures. He will also achieve this without a cent in student loans. “I’m going to be done with no debt, and I’m getting valuable on the job training along the way,” he said. “It’s working out great for me.”

As policy makers look for strategies to help the U.S. workforce adapt to the global economy, Allen Miller might be the model for the kind of worker the U.S. economy needs more of to succeed.