Dan Juntunen and his staff at Wells Concrete in Minnesota and North Dakota have made an important commitment to the future of the precast industry. As Dan learned more about what was happening at several PCI Foundation Schools, he and Vice president of Operations Gregg Jacobson decided that it would be beneficial to make the same thing happen for The Wells Companies. Not only for the industry at large, but also for his companies. Wells partnered with the Civil Engineering and Construction Management schools at Minnesota State University at Mankato to come up with a precast education program that had never been tried before. What started as an idea to have a couple of new classes has turned into a full-fledged program where students from the two departments are both involved in a number of ways.
"This has been one of the most interesting projects we’ve worked on in the last few years. It’s exciting because of the student engagement," says Dan. "Before we had this partnership, the students were coming out of engineering and construction management programs with a limited knowledge of precast, whereas now they have a deeper understanding of the product and the industry."
The staff effort has been led by Gregg Jacobson, who has gotten several other staff involved working with professors Mohamed Diab and Farhad Reza as curriculum advisors, guest teachers, plant tour leaders, and jobsite facilitators. According to Dan, the engineering staff feels energized working with the students. It pulls them out of their day-to-day routine and gives them a chance to work with these engaging and energetic students.
And while there may be only a few students in any given class, the school has been really great about opening up the outings to other students, so when Wells gives jobsite tours, many other students attend. Tours have included projects being erected as well as plant tours. "The studio is really is growing at Mankato. There are some great kids who are interested in getting involved. There were 12 people in the studio this year, and when we offered to take them to go to the Vikings Stadium, there were 55 people Civil Engineering, construction management, and the dean," says Gregg Jacobson.
At the end of the day, we have a large group of students flowing into the job market who have an awareness and an excitement about precast. Here we get an opportunity to catch these kids before they get into a work environment.
So why did Dan decide to make the commitment to donate, not only to the school, but also to the PCI Foundation? "It was an easy decision for us to become a donor. For precasters, our biggest challenge is a simple lack of knowledge - much more so than for block and brick or steel," says Dan. "It may take awhile to overcome that challenge - but without these programs, it won’t happen. The universities aren’t going to change their curriculum to include precast on their own. This is our opportunity to get in the marketplace and somebody has to pay for it.
"At Wells, we think the payback on this investment is exponential. We are already starting to get our investment back. If we get 20 graduates per year going into the local job market with a strong knowledge of precast and just one of those students brings us back just one project - our investment has paid for itself. And it isn’t only that we are seeing these students go to work for our customers. They are also coming back to work for Wells. We have 2 or 3 interns from the program this summer, and we have had at least one great hire."
An important part of making the program at MSU Mankato is that the staff at Wells has been available and willing to work with the professors at the school. "The professors at MSU Mankato and the staff at Wells, have embraced this program so enthusiastically that to the point where it has been a truly open dialog," says Dan. "It is a partnership, not a transaction. Professors are very motivated to see it succeed and see it keep going. That dialog means that the program is fluid. Always changing and evolving."
The other thing that stands out for Gregg is that working with students has been enjoyable. "The Bottom line is that it is still a lot of fun. Never in my life did I think that I would hang out with a professor and dean from the college. I'm having a ball."