Young leader takes workforce development to the classroom

May 1, 2023
Josh Allen puts what he's learned as an operator and foreman to train others for the field

Josh Allen began doing chores and working part-time jobs when he was 11 years old so he could contribute to his family’s economic bottom line. Although he enjoyed school, he understood that attending college probably wasn’t going to be an option for him. Not having the means to continue his formal education didn’t deter him from his lifelong goal of learning something new every day, however. Called a trailblazer by his colleagues, Allen walks the “path less taken” and is leading others as they build construction careers in Virginia. He found his way to college after all.

By day, Allen is an excavator operator and foreman with S.W. Rodgers, a family-owned site developer based in Gainesville, Virginia. He manages the delivery, daily operations, and maintenance of multiple types of heavy equipment at use on a project. Allen is also a 2022 honoree of Construction Equipment’s Under 40 in Construction Equipment Awards.

“As supervisor of the production schedule, my task is to complete sitework jobs in a safe, professional, and cost-effective manner,” Allen says. “Tight coordination is often required to manage our subcontractors and other customer trades working onsite.”

Josh learned equipment operation from his father, who owned a small construction company where he worked during and after high school. He joined S.W. Rodgers when he was 20 and learned how to operate an asphalt roller and eventually an excavator.

It was while relaxing with friends after work that Allen heard that the local junior college was looking for someone to teach the school’s newly developed heavy equipment operator course using the equipment simulators. Though he had no teaching credentials or college experience, Allen put his name in for consideration.

In 2017, Laurel Ridge Community College (LRCC), Middletown, Virginia, had been awarded a Workforce Capacity Building grant from the Virginia Community College System to establish a fast-track heavy equipment operator (HEO) credential program at its Vint Hill site. Projections at the time were that at least 150 new heavy equipment operators would be needed each year just in Virginia’s Fauquier County alone. T.J. Rodgers, a project manager with S.W. Rodgers and secretary of the Heavy Construction Contractors Association, which partners with Laurel Ridge, recommended Allen to Jeanian Clark, VP of the Laurel Ridge Workforce Solutions and Continuing Education programs.

No degree, no problem

The fact that Allen had neither a college education nor teaching credentials was supplanted by his more than 10 years of operator experience and his reputation as a highly skilled operator with passion and integrity.

Working with Donna Comer, LRCC program director, Allen was a key element in setting up the workforce HEO training program. Allen teaches the fast-track operator course in six-week increments, and 10 training sessions are scheduled for 2023.

Always looking for new ways to make workforce skills training more accessible to area students, Comer calls Allen her trailblazer. “Whatever ideas I come up with, Josh is ready to take them on,” she says. “He is willing to try anything new and always offers good insight and brings industry expertise to any idea.”

Allen also teaches the college’s HEO program for high schools, which award credit toward college work. When Comer asked Allen if he would be the first instructor to train inmates from Prince William-Manassas Regional Adult Detention Center (ADC) work release program, he jumped at the opportunity. Comer proudly reports all the participants successfully passed their certification exams and several have found jobs after their release.

Allen also was the first teacher to integrate the LRCC online coursework with the hands-on simulator lab work. When the college phased in online learning and testing materials, Allen saw that one of his students was struggling because English was not his first language. Allen asked a colleague to translate the class material for the student.

Knowledge, ability connect with students

Comer says Allen’s high level of operations knowledge and natural ability to connect with the students establishes his teaching style.

“Students, young and old, professionally established and greenhorns—many walks of life—all admire and respect Josh,” Comer says. “Students frequently tell me they want to grow up and be just like him.”

Allen has an innate understanding of his student’s perspectives and expectations when they begin his class. He credits some of his students’ acceptance of him as a teacher on the fact that he sets a level playing field for everyone he teaches. He engages everyone from where they begin, fully confident that because they are there they want to learn. He’s trained teenagers to second-career professionals, including a retired CIA agent. His colleagues say his natural ability to manage a classroom can rival anyone with formal training.

Miriam Pearson, S.W. Rodgers VP, says Allen adds more to his training classes than just machine operation.

“Allen takes his training further than just the simulator,” she says. “He teaches his students about an operator’s lifestyle. He tells students what to expect and how to navigate the challenges that are part of an operator’s career, such as planning for fewer hours and less income during winter. [He] discusses options with the students, what works, what doesn’t, how to get the most out of both the down time and overtime.”

Allen leads by example and teaches from experience. Knowing that their teacher has walked the same path and has every confidence his students will complete the same journey successfully is the magic that germinates accomplishment. His students respect his no-nonsense attitude and prefer him to tell it like it is. They understand he is authentic, an expert teacher who lives what he teaches. Based on what he knows from his own experience, Allen conveys his belief in each student.

Allen says his students frequently tell him, “I’m going to really suck at this” when they first climb into an excavator cab. Allen simply and calmly accepts the student’s self-assessment, then answers with a nonjudgmental, “Yeah, you’ll suck because it is your first day. That’s life, you know?”

His approach to instructing both in the classroom and on the job is to let trainees know he is working with them. “I know how bad it feels to be judged or treated unfairly,” Allen says.

Laurel Ridge does not own any equipment, just simulators. Running an excavator or dozer is not part of the class curriculum, so Allen takes his class to a job site on his own, not as an official part of the HEO course. Allen calls on some of his contractor friends who let him take willing trainees out for hands-on practice on heavy equipment.

“They need to know how it feels to hit a rock,” Allen says. “There are some things that have to be experienced to be learned.”

Allen is now a Certified Instructor for the HEO program and has been recognized by HCCA for his contributions to develop a successful HEO program at LRCC.

Part of S.W. Rodgers’ annual gearing up for building season includes interviewing potential new hires, many of whom have competed Allen’s class.

“Work ethic is everything,” says Chuck Rodgers, operational superintendent for S.W. Rodgers. “Workers who train for their credentials with Allen and the FastForward program have an understanding of safety through the day-to-day operations, so they fit right in. And if they’re going to take the trouble to do the program and get certified, they’ve shown they have the work ethic, and that’s a huge plus for them, and for us as the employer.”

That’s a win-win situation for both the company and the newly trained job seekers. Rodgers says they often find great new hires in Allen’s classes, and the students tell Comer they want to “work where Josh works.“

Comer says she has some ideas about putting simulators on trailers and taking training to even more operator students who cannot regularly come to the college. Allen says he would love to start his own training facility. “There’s no better feeling than knowing you’ve positively impacted someone’s future.”