Daybreak has already cracked through the sky by the time De’Andre Williams arrives at Fort Myer Construction’s asphalt plant at 1155 W Street in Northeast Washington, D.C. At 7 a.m., he walks onto the grounds and into a trailer that’s home to the asphalt quality control lab where he works eight-hour days, five days a week. Williams drops off his bookbag, then calls up to the control tower to check how many trucks have been loaded out with asphalt that will soon head to projects across the D.C. area. But first, samples must be collected. That’s where Williams’ job comes in.
“I test the asphalt before it goes out onto the jobs sites to make sure it is the way it should be so there isn’t any problems,” says Williams, a quality control technician at a company known for its vast infrastructure projects, from paving streets and highways to repairing and reconstructing bridges. That process includes a visual inspection of the first load, checking the temperature to make sure it’s hot enough, then randomly pulling about 50 pounds of asphalt from one of the first round of trucks assigned to a job. Once the sample enters the lab, however, that’s where the “magic” happens, according to Williams.
He stands in front of a metal table strewn with matching trays of what looks like stones, crushed rocks and asphalt.
Nearby, are shiny cylinders of various sizes, a metal scooper, scales and other tools of his craft. Under the supervision of Jason Miller, Williams is responsible for breaking the mixture down into those trays before running a battery of tests to assess quality and durability, including removing air from a submerged batch of the black mixture so it’s compacted to compare its weight to one that hasn’t undergone the process, and, dropping samples into 1,000-degree ignition ovens to burn off the liquid asphalt — an important step in determining asphalt content. Such tasks need someone with sharp math skills, a trait Williams embodied when he came on board in June 2019.
“Within two weeks he probably was able to run all these sets of tests,” says Miller, a quality control manager at Fort Myer, of the 19-year-old with an easygoing manner and understated sense of humor. “There is a lot of work with your hands, but there’s also a lot of calculations … a lot of math. He had all those skills when he came in the door.”
“Thank you Jason,” Williams responds.
They both laugh.
A Whole New World
Last year, Williams graduated from the Academy of Construction and Design at IDEA with a concentration in carpentry. Lauded as the “turnaround kid,” he received a $2,000 Dreyfuss Scholarship and shared how his experiences in the program attributed to him becoming a leader among his peers. He is strengthening that skill at Fort Myer, where he is striving to elevate himself in the workforce.
Already, Williams has passed a Level 1 course for certification as a quality control technician. And more recently, he successfully completed the Level 2 course, with certification pending passage of a lab-based proficiency exam (put on hold in the wake of COVID-19). Successful completion of the exam would allow him to “fly around here on the daily and test samples” without direct supervision, Miller explains, suggesting he is also being readied for a six-day-a week schedule that mixes in Saturday or even some nighttime hours.
“The world is a scary place,” admits Williams, but he is advancing with guidance from his supervisor and co-worker support. “[The team] here help me a lot actually,” he shares, “most of this stuff I wouldn’t know if it wasn’t for Jason and the guys who work with me.”
But Williams is not alone in this journey. Fellow Class of 2019 Academy graduate Kyeon Ford, who won a $4,000 Dreyfuss Scholarship, also started with Fort Myer Construction shortly after graduation, accepting a position as an administrative assistant in the Asphalt Division.
Ford clearly remembers that first visit in April 2019 to Fort Myer headquarters while still in high school, an experience that would spark his passion for learning about asphalt, and in turn, joining the company. After hearing asphalt general manager David Love talk about a quality control job position, Ford was hooked.
“As soon as he pulled out the first asphalt sample and said that they create them in the lab, I said, ‘Sign me up!” he recalls.
Three months later, it’s Ford’s first day on the job. He remembers waking up at 5 a.m. to arrive on “the yard” by 7. Shortly after entering the asphalt trailer, within eyesight of the company’s administrative building in Northeast, supervisor Sedrick Battle puts him to work. “I walked in and was nervous because I had no idea what was going to happen,” Ford shares. Next, the sink or swim moment: Battle left Ford for hours to face a barrage of superintendent requests, from pulling emergency no parking permits to firming up details of meeting the requirements for the local construction contracts (such as confirming street addresses for scheduled work by road crews). Now these and other tasks are regular duties, responsibilities he juggles rather seamlessly.
“It was pretty much a breeze from there,” Ford says.
Another perk: “He has helped me take my job to the next level,” says Battle, the utility cut supervisor at Fort Myer Construction, who mentors and manages Ford.
For Ford, finding a workplace that embraced him like family was at the top of his list. That’s just what he found in Fort Myer, he says, where Battle and the rest of the team makes sure he’s in the right mindset personally and professionally. That “family-oriented environment” spans from the superintendents to the asphalt roller operator, says Ford.
“I absolutely love it,” Ford gushes,“Everyone here is so eager to teach me and make sure that I can work at this company successfully.”
When in the office, Ford and Battle are in close company. Their desks are only steps apart, making it easier to fire off instructions for the latest construction project. Posted nearby, a calendar with the catch phrase, “Consider It Done” — fittingly symbolic for the sentiment Battle has for any task he assigns Ford.
“We’re not only coworkers, we really got to watch out for each other. If he makes a mistake, you got to help him first, not attack him,” adds Battle. “We see each other at 5 o’clock in the morning, we leave late in the evening, six-days a week. So you’re getting to know someone like they’re your brother.”
Ford and Williams are the first graduates to be plucked by Fort Myer from the Academy of Construction
and Design, a skilled training program launched by the D.C. Students Construction Trades Foundation. It’s a relationship that started following a conversation during the 2017 Meet the Future luncheon, according to Evelyn Ross, director of the Small Business Outreach Program at the company.
“One of the things we noticed is that most of the kids who were graduating from the Academy were not going into the construction industry, they were going on to college,” Ross says, noting that there are ample opportunities for young people to learn and grow outside of higher education.
Construction industry observers agree exposure is important when career and technical education is largely not prioritized within school curricula, as students are less likely to gravitate to what they don’t know or experience.
“We’ve had great difficulty in continuing to find personnel to fill our ranks,” says Lewis Shrensky, executive vice president of Fort Myer Construction. “In today’s world, the reality is that kids going into high school are not looking to follow their fathers into these construction trades. The last thing they’re thinking about is operating a piece of construction equipment or being a crane operator.”
He continues, “But it is exciting and today this equipment takes a lot of skill and real knowledge to operate. To be an effective construction worker is a big deal and pays extremely well.”
At Fort Myer, a company built on the foundation of helping employees attain the “American Dream,” compensation ranges from about $30,000 for entry level skilled laborer to $100,000-plus for higher level management positions.
A Future Plan
Looking ahead, Williams is focused on continued growth within his field while Ford aspires to become a superintendent at Fort Myer, and eventually, own his own construction company.
Indeed, there are challenges along the way — like dealing with different personalities, which can be tough — but Ford, for one, is taking it all in stride with the support of those around him and an ingrained mentality of teamwork and responsibility ingrained in him by the Academy of Construction and Design.
“When you ride around the city and can say, ‘Hey, Fort Myer did that,’ or you see a Fort Myer truck, you feel so happy,” Ford says, in awe each day of what his work helps create across the city. “Even sometimes the simple things are exciting.”
Editor’s Note: The interviews were conducted and photos taken earlier this year before the pandemic shutdowns.