By John Budnik
With every nugget of engineering expertise his mentors share with him, Sgt. 1st Class Ron Albert's confidence grows as he performs his temporary duties with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- Alaska District.
Through a partnership between the district and 2nd Engineer Brigade, both located on Joint Base Elmendorf -- Richardson, the Engineer Corps is preparing a stronger Soldier and Army through the Arctic Trailblazer Internship Program. By way of this and other professional development opportunities, Soldiers are honing their craft in the construction-trade industries.
As a whole, the Army's Engineer Corps is comprised of both active-duty Army engineer units and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which employs approximately 37,000 civilians worldwide.
Since 2012, the Arctic Trailblazer internships have fostered a cohesive relationship between the two organizations. The on-the-job training is a chance for selected troops to equip themselves with a new element of engineering education. What they learn can be applied to their normal duty assignments and throughout their careers.
"The ultimate goal is for Soldiers to take this information back to their units and instill into others," said Bill Leider, quality assurance representative in the Alaska District Construction-Operations Division and Albert's mentor. "We want to make a stronger Army."
A 90-day assignment in the district's Military Construction Program, Civil Works Program or Interagency and International Services Program is available to the brigade's qualifying junior-ranking officers and mid-level noncommissioned officers. The curriculum aims to update Soldiers on the best engineering practices, increase safety awareness to the standards of the civilian industry and support the training goals of the brigade.
"It provides safety to our Soldiers," Albert explained, an engineer inspector for the 2nd Engineer Brigade and Arctic Trailblazer intern. "I've been deployed five times and most of our injuries to construction personnel are due to safety (deficiencies)."
Accepted applicants are carefully matched to a comparable position within the district that complements their future goals. While the program is still new, the time away from the Soldier's normal unit is proving to be valuable along with an added bonus.
"It provides the knowledge to work in a civilian job once we get out of the Army," Albert said.
Reading technical drawings or blueprints while in active-duty status was never a norm, Albert admits. His first day in the Construction-Operations Division provided a fortune of new engineering insight that included lessons like testing concrete, but as Leider explained, "It's only the tip of the ice berg."
"You can really educate yourself in these 90-days of training," he added.
Working in the Alaska District's Southern Area Office, located on Fort Richardson's side of the installation, Albert is getting hands-on experience while walking in the footsteps of a quality assurance representative. In this position, a district agent inspects project sites, meets with contractors and ensures that contract requirements are met.
Eventually, Albert will come off the bench, so to speak, and conduct site visits of his own with coaching from a district representative as needed.
Albert said he values the sense of confidence the district has in him and appreciates how it has taken him underneath its wing.
The Arctic Trailblazer Internship Program is not the only training opportunity the Alaska District is providing to the brigade. On Oct. 19, personnel from the district's Safety Office trained the 56th Engineer Company on Occupational Health and Safety Administration standards as well as the safety and health requirements outlined in Army Engineering Manual 385-1-1. The session was part of a larger event hosted by the company that highlighted the construction-trade industry with an emphasis on carpentry.
"You can't put a price tag on it," said Warrant Officer Daniel Schwab, a construction engineering technician with the company, when describing the value of safety.
Approximately 95 Soldiers learned about best practices involving scaffolding, electrical safety, confined spaces and more. The training was highly applicable to the company's wealth of expertise that includes plumbers, pipefitters, carpenters, masons and interior electricians.
"It's ultimately going to increase our productivity," Schwab said. "We're going to have less down time for any related safety incidents."
How to properly use a harness when working at dangerous heights was a memorable part of the training for many of the Soldiers. They tested the fall arrest equipment using a device that allowed them to dangle a safe distance off the ground from a hydraulic steel frame attached to the back of a truck.
"These guys now have the knowledge to execute anything the Army throws at us," Schwab said.
The confidence the Alaska District is cultivating with the brigade is a catalyst to strengthening the Army's Engineer Corps one Soldier at a time.