“They don’t teach you codes and standards in engineering school,” explains Carlos Rojas, a Staff Engineer in Jacksonville’s Structural Division. “You don’t learn about specific building materials beyond the basics of wood, steel, and concrete.”
This reality can leave many new engineering grads feeling thrown into the deep end when they begin their careers, making a quality onboarding experience vital to a young engineer’s success in the “real world.” To that end, Apex’s commitment to teamwork and collaboration recently gave rise to its new Keystone Training Program. The program, which started taking shape in the summer of 2021, was designed to give new engineers an opportunity to become more comfortable with Apex’s design process and core software before jumping into daily responsibilities as a staff engineer.
“Because we know that engineers right out of school usually have little or no experience with design or construction documents, we designed Keystone Training to fill in the blanks,” explains Dalton Dixon, Apex Director of Production and member of the Keystone Training development team. “These engineers spend 8-10 weeks with our production team and then 2-4 weeks with our component team. Once they complete the program, they can hit the ground running with both baseline knowledge of the company and a familiarity with the designers who will be working on their projects in the future.”
“Keystone Training was really useful,” says Carlos, who started with Apex in May of 2022, right after graduating from the University of Florida with a Civil Engineering degree. “I not only learned the company standards, I also gained an understanding of why one solution is used over another, whether it’s an issue of constructability, pricing, etc. Compared to what I’ve heard from my former schoolmates, Apex trains really well.”
Cari Kearney, Project Manager for True Design Studios, was the first member of the Architectural Design Division to experience Keystone Training. She says she’s been at other agencies where she didn’t have the benefit of this kind of onboarding. “The Keystone program was the most organized training I’ve ever received – I was blown away!,” she says. “I received documentation to read, videos to watch, and step-by-step instructions to follow. The materials preemptively answered questions I didn’t even know I was going to have.”
At Apex, the commitment to investing deeply in a new hire’s success starts with the company’s top leadership.
“We strongly believe all our employees have the potential to be great, it’s just a matter of igniting the flame,” says Jeff Arneson, PE, Apex’s Head of Engineering. “The Keystone Training Program is one way we are committed to doing just that.”
Jeff explains that the initiative was born from President Mike Kozlowski’s passion for making Apex the best company to work for. “Mike’s direct interest in breaking down silos and building trust between team members was a huge impetus for creating an onboarding program that’s second to none,” he says. “I believe Keystone Training has made an immediate impact since its beginnings in 2021, and it has been rewarding to play a part in this collaborative effort.”
In particular, Jeff says he appreciates Hunter Meacham’s readiness – right out of school – to be the program’s first trainee and provide constructive feedback. Hunter is now a Staff Engineer in Apex’s Mid-Atlantic office, and Jeff says his “maturity, professionalism, and accountability” were formative throughout the process. Likewise, Jeff applauds the production team’s ability to see the vision for this kind of onboarding. “Dalton’s willingness to get behind the day-to-day management has been essential to the program’s success,” he says.
Any worthwhile initiative takes time to evolve, and recent participants in the Keystone Training Program are reaping the benefits of the development team’s commitment to continuous improvement over the last 18 months. For example, Anthony Gang is a Virginia Tech recruit serving on Mid-Atlantic’s structural team and a recent Keystone graduate. He spent about three months with the production team after joining Apex in June of 2022.
“My time working as a designer in the Keystone Training Program taught me how important it is to kick off an accurate, successful project,” Anthony explains. “I learned about site specifics and base plan work, and then moved to live jobs and plan setups. I even got an opportunity to set up my own base plan. From there, I was introduced to what I’d be doing with the Mid-Atlantic division, which made me feel confident about what to expect when I made the transition to the structural team.”
Francesca Mellis, PE, is a Senior Project Manager in the Mid-Atlantic office who has been with the company since 2017. “When I joined Apex, the training was more traditional – jump in and learn as you go,” she says. “Keystone Training gives engineers a clear path to understanding how the production team works behind the scenes and how truss design works in practice. When these engineers step into their division, not only do they fly through our training, they definitely have more knowledge and confidence in tackling the problems and challenges that come their way.”
Francesca recently welcomed Anthony to her team, and she says it has been “so cool” to watch him make the transition. “His time in Keystone Training meant I could immediately start pouring knowledge into him, which was great,” she says. “But I also knew I could give him a list of tasks he could accomplish without much handholding. I love this program!”
Having recently added Carlos to his team in the Jacksonville division, Senior Project Manager Thomas Dukes, PE, agrees. “This kind of rigorous onboarding helps me out as a manager because I know Keystone graduates are ready to step in and hit the ground running when they join their division,” he says.
Thomas is also very positive about the program’s emphasis on learning good, effective communication. “There’s an art and science to communicating through drawings that you don’t learn in engineering school,” he explains. “How the construction process works is just as important as how the engineering works. Keystone Training brings these ideas together early on for a new engineer and helps them understand our process and what the team is trying to achieve.”
“Good communication from the start makes the process more efficient,” agrees Carlos. “I got a lot of feedback during my training, which was really helpful because I learned how to get redlines as a designer. Now I know what a designer is looking for and the basis for providing feedback.”
“Plus, everyone here is very approachable,” he continues. “so I felt comfortable going to the different departments to get questions answered along the way.”
Building relationships with the individuals who would be working on her projects was an important benefit for Cari, too. “I had the chance to actually sit in the designer’s seat,” she explains. “Because of that experience, I can relate to what the production team is going through on their end of the project and better communicate in their language. I super enjoyed my time in that department. It was so helpful.”
The program wasn’t implemented only to help new engineers and project managers. Brandon Look, Production Team Specialist for Mid-Atlantic, agrees that Keystone Training reinforces a good working relationship between production and engineering “right off the bat.” He says the biggest benefit is “giving new engineers an understanding of how the production team handles things and what it’s like from our side – our capacity for work, how quickly we can turn things around, etc.”
Francesca says that designers are positive about the program. She points out that it’s an opportunity for them to interact closely with new engineers and teach them “good, clean habits” about how to communicate via redlines when they move into their divisions. “Designers also get the opportunity to hear how the engineers think and approach problems,” she explains, “which further improves the communication process and strengthens the relationship between departments.”
“My background in truss design is another reason I like Keystone Training,” says Thomas, who started with Apex as a truss designer in 2003. “The program lays the foundation for understanding our wheelhouse of work. Lots of specific drawings are done at the production level. Starting out in that base of business gets new engineers off on the right foot because they understand the rules at the design level. It gives engineers a chance to walk a mile in the designers’ shoes, creating a positive relationship between departments rooted in how the whole system works.”
Anthony says component training with Dave Buchanan was one of his favorite parts of Keystone Training. “Learning how they do truss design was really enjoyable because I got to see what can be done to optimize the components and how influential it is,” he says. “Dave is so knowledgeable and taught me so much. I’ve already put that training into action on projects!”
At the end of the day, the Keystone Training development team believes the program has been effective because it was designed to invest in the success of each individual who joins the Apex team while building bridges between departments and furthering the core values of the company.
“Giving our new hires a hands-on understanding of what’s both cost-effective and can be built in the field advances the value of our unique Collaborative Design Process from the start of their careers with us,” Jeff concludes. “Providing them with the tools for good resource management in a humble, collaborative environment based on good communication and accountability, lays the groundwork for unparalleled growth and success in the future.”