With Little Debbie oatmeal creme pies selling like hot cakes, McKee Foods Corp. is looking for better traffic flow into and out of its Collegedale headquarters, such as a road-widening project contracted by the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
The $100-million Apison Road project will be completed within about two years thanks to a cadre of University of Tennessee at Chattanooga graduates working and managing the project as employees of Charleston, Tennessee-based Wright Brothers Construction Co. Wright Brothers is a 700-worker operation throughout the Southeast with annual revenues at about a quarter billion dollars.
“Each year, Wright Brothers places interns from UTC’s civil engineering and construction management programs on job sites and in construction offices across the Southeast,” said Anthony P. Boals, a Wright Brothers vice president with a master’s degree from UTC. “Many interns have remained and taken full-time positions with the company. Wright Brothers has certainly been the beneficiary of the high-quality engineering and management students UTC is producing for the construction industry.”
Many universities, he said, are answering the industry’s call by creating construction management programs.
The business always needs top-flight engineers, but also astute managers of employees and finances, he said.
“These programs are light on technical (expertise) and heavy on business and management,” Boals said. “When UTC started its construction management program, we were instrumental in meeting with them and helping them design their curriculum. Our ties go back several years with UTC.”
Another tentacle connecting Tennessee college students to construction jobs are scholarships awarded by the state Road Builders Association, of which Wright Brothers is a member. Boals said UTC gets up to a dozen such scholarships each year.
“It works out good for both students and companies,” he said. “It’s kind of a no-obligation dating service, as I like to tell the students. We get to find out if you like us and we like you.”
Overall, Wright Brothers places up to 18 college students as interns each year, many of them studying at UTC, Boals said.
“UTC has really been a key component with supplying Wright Brothers with good, quality students ready to go into the construction industry,” he said.
Among those students is 2009 alumnus Tanner Dodd, who majored in anthropology and archaeology with a minor in history. Dodd, a native of nearby McDonald, Tennessee, said he’s been a student of soil systems since his days at Bradley Central High School (Class of 2004).
Dodd manages the Apison Pike (State Route 317) project, which runs about six miles from Collegedale to East Brainerd Road. One of the most significant projects ever undertaken by Wright Brothers, it involves widening roads, erecting turn lanes and improving or building five bridges and 10 walls—while navigating a creek, a greenway, private property and under- and overground utilities, Dodd said.
“I would say it’s probably one of the larger jobs that Wright Brothers has done in its history but mostly because it has a little bit of everything,” he said.
The Apison Pike project, when completed by June 2025, will ease the growing pains of McKee and nearby Southern Adventist University, Dodd said.
McKee announced in 2020 an estimated $500 million in capital projects, including doubling the size of its Collegedale headquarters and adding a new production line. The plant, which began production in May 1997, nearly tripled in size with an expansion completed in December 2006. The company mushroomed again with building projects finished in November 2012.
McKee also has offices in Gentry, Arkansas; Stuarts Draft, Virginia; and Kingman, Arizona.
Another Wright Brothers worker on the Apison Pike project is current UTC student Jared Spradlin, who will graduate Dec. 17 with a degree in engineering, technology and construction management. He began a Wright Brothers internship in March 2021 and went full-time there three months later.
A three-year offensive lineman at Shorter University in Rome, Georgia, Spradlin said he was beckoned to UTC because of its engineering program. Most of his credits transferred with him and he began UTC classes in January 2021.
His internship with Wright Brothers began as a quasi-apprenticeship under Wright old-timer Gordon “Rocky” Hunter.
“I saw an opportunity to grow my knowledge and always loved buildings,” Spradlin said. “Rocky told me that to really make a difference, ‘You build roads and shape the Earth.’ He taught me how to operate a job efficiently and took me under his wing.
“UTC was a big part in me getting this internship. I sent my resume to the head of construction engineering management, Dr. (Ahad) Nasab. He got me three internship offers in two weeks.”
Nasab, director of the UTC Engineering Management and Technology program, said he remains in constant contact with area construction firms so they can place interns. He added that internships are mandatory in those majors.
“We keep track of who is interning where and with whom. This really gives us a good database of companies that hire our students,” Nasab said. “So we have a ready list of all these people who are really interested in our program and our courses.”
It helps, he said, that the chief executive officer of Associated General Contractors of East Tennessee, Leslie Gower, is on his department’s advisory board.
“Whenever we want something, we can ask them to find an internship for a student, and we immediately get a response,” Nasab said.
Nicole Wake, career adviser for the UTC College of Engineering and Computer Science, said the University also connects with area businesses through outreach that includes emails, LinkedIn and other social media, and handshakes.
“I also meet with a variety of them on a regular basis via Zoom or in person to understand their recruitment needs and assist by offering support,” Wake said, adding, “I also provide an overview of opportunities for them to connect with students” through professional development events, workshops, recruitment tables, lunch-and-learns and through speaker series.
Brian Charlesworth, a McDonald native, Ringgold, Georgia, resident and UTC graduate in the Class of 2007, is Wright’s Tennessee project manager and overseer of the Apison Pike project.
He said UTC drew him through its in-state tuition and being able to live at home with his parents—and its engineering program, which got him internships with TDOT and Hutton Construction Inc. and then a job with C.J. Mahan Construction Co., for which he worked on the Chickamauga lock project at the local dam.
“When I graduated from UTC, I was able to go to job fairs and had lined up three to four interviews when I graduated. I got a few offers and was able to choose what I wanted to do,” Charlesworth said.
Not only do UTC engineering and construction management graduates call Wright their corporate home, the Charleston company employs other types of University graduates, including Wright Brothers Director of Marketing Joelle M. Cavitt.
Boals, who oversees Wright’s internship program, said many UTC students earn scholarships and secure full-time employment with Wright before graduation.
“It’s really a benefit when it works out that way,” he said. “We have a line on a good employee, and the student already has employment before they graduate. We’re definitely reaping the benefits of UTC.”