Joe Wrobel has been living and breathing highway and bridge repair and maintenance for 45 years and knows the industry inside out.
From an office in Vernon, in north Okanagan, Wrobel owns and operates three companies: JPW Earthworks Inc., Traction Innovations and JPW Road and Bridge Inc.
JPW Earthworks Inc. owns and operates a small gravel pit and rock quarry near Vernon and provides excavation, trucking and civil site preparation services in the region.
“The company provides gravel to homeowners and farmers in the area, as well as to contractors,” said Wrobel.
Traction Innovations is a start-up that sells two products for roadbuilding and maintenance contractors: Auto Socks, which gives added traction in snow and icy conditions; and Diamond Grid, a pad that can be filled with aggregate or concrete to provide added stability to large vehicles when they are stationary.
JPW Road and Bridge, which Wrobel is winding down, had a road and bridge maintenance contract with the BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI).
Highway and bridge repair and maintenance in B.C., with its mountainous terrain and changeable weather, is not for the faint of heart.
“It’s a high-cost, high-stress business,” said Wrobel.
Private contractors who work for MOTI are responsible for maintaining provincial highways year-round.
Each contractor in the 28 different contract service areas in the province is in charge of repairing and maintaining the driving surface, completing all roadside upkeep and handling bridge and winter maintenance.
The contractor’s duties are many and they include pothole patching, maintaining gravel roads, sign maintenance, bridge repair, crack sealing, snow and ice control, drainage management and traffic management.
Wrobel’s long career in highway maintenance began with a degree in geological engineering at the University of British Columbia, which was followed by a stint as an engineer-in-training with Stevenson International Groundwater Consultants Ltd.
Then Wrobel worked for 11 years in a series of positions with the BC Ministry of Transportation and Highways.
He was an engineering aide, geotechnical engineer, regional manager of the geotechnical and materials engineering offices in Kamloops and Prince George; district highways manager in the Fernie and Cranbrook offices; the ministry’s representative on a premier’s committee; and Terrace regional manager, where he was responsible for highway maintenance in the ministry’s northwest region’s five districts.
After his service to the public sector, Wrobel took on senior management positions with a number of private sector ministry contractors including Trendline Industries Limited, Emcon Services Inc., AEL Limited and HMC Services Inc.
By now Wrobel had an opportunity to start and run his own company, and in 2013 JPW Road and Bridge was born.
“We did everything,” said Wrobel. “We fixed potholes, mowed vegetation, drained ditches, graded gravel and upgraded bridges. In addition, JPW handled emergency response. Somebody in our company was on the road every day.”
Because it was responsible for the ministry’s large Service Area 13 (Okanagan-Shuswap), JPW was a big operation.
It required 150 employees in the winter, nine equipment sites and two equipment repair and maintenance shops.
“We were successful because we put together a good management team and ran a lean operation and kept our overhead low,” said Wrobel. “But the work was very stressful, and after eight years I decided not to bid on any more highway contracts. I went for something smaller and with less 24/7 pressure than highway maintenance – JPW Earthworks.”
Wrobel says the repair and maintenance industry faces a growing list of challenges.
“As our economy grows, it puts more stress on the highway system,” he said. “But our infrastructure is old and our highways need serious maintenance.”
At the same time as there is more work to be done, Wrobel says, we have a greater responsibility to look after the environment.
“We need to build climate resiliency into highway infrastructure, so that our highways are able to handle the effects of climate change,” he said. “Perhaps we need to make highways part of flood mitigation.”
To live up to these expectations, Canada’s road network will need a skilled work force.
“Infrastructure construction and maintenance will be competing with other industries for labour,” said Wrobel. “We need to make infrastructure construction and maintenance a career of choice for young people by telling them about all the opportunities the industry has to offer.”
Success always comes down to the people, he says.
“The people in highway maintenance and repair are builders and doers,” Wrobel said. “They rise to every challenge and I am confident the industry will meet the coming challenges through innovation and more diverse, inclusive and safer worksites.”