By Lisa Britton

For the Baker City Herald

Drew Terteling hopped down from the front end loader, grinning at his Baker High School classmates.

“Did you see all that imaginary dirt?” he said.

Terteling, a senior at BHS, had the chance to explore a variety of jobs in construction and utilities at the ODOT Career Day Thursday at the Oregon Department of Transportation facility just east of the North Baker exit on Interstate 84.

This event started in 2011, and is held every two years. This is the third time it has been in Baker City, said Tom Strandberg, public information officer for ODOT’s region 5.

More than 500 students from 25 schools across Eastern Oregon attended the event, which ran from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

ODOT’s Sandy Lowe coordinated the event.

“It’s to spread the world about what ODOT is and what we do,” she said.

Others on site included OTEC, Cascade Natural Gas, and Vemco.

It’s sometimes difficult, Lowe said, to fill jobs in Eastern Oregon.

“It’s giving them options,” she said of the event. “You can stay (in Eastern Oregon) and be successful.”

Groups rotated through 23 stations. Some were observation only, such as the post driver that drills posts into the hard ground. Others had students driving excavators, maneuvering a robot through a culvert, and blasting rocks.

“A lot of hands-on,” Strandberg said. “They get an opportunity to get exposed to the trades, and see if it’s something they’d like to do.”

He said career days are common on the west side of Oregon. The hope is that a similar event in Eastern Oregon will reach those who might otherwise not know about these jobs.

“It’s expanded every year,” Standberg said. “There’s nothing else like it.”

At one station, Josephine Watson operated a crane to set a concrete barrier inside a spray-painted rectangle. On the ground, Gordon Harrison helped guide the barrier.

“It was a lot more work than I expected,” said Watson, a senior at Huntington High School. “There were a lot more controls and buttons than I thought there would be.”

Other students were one step ahead when it came to the machines.

Terteling, after laughing about his imaginary dirt, said he’s already practiced in his heavy equipment course at Baker Technical Institute.

“I kind of have a foot in the door,” he said. “I have so much fun doing this.”

ODOT employee Austin Plumbtree helped students operate the vactor, a truck equipped with a high-powered vacuum. Maddy Sturm, a freshman from Union High School, used a remote control to maneuver a bowling ball into a painted circle.

Sturm said her favorite station was welding, where students made piggy banks.

“I can make things for myself,” said Sturm, who is learning how to weld in her ag class.

At the land surveying station, students moved equipment around to simulate surveying a site.

“Mainly we make maps,” said Bret Elithorp, region surveyor. “It’s a lot of math and science.”

Duties of surveyors include creating topographic maps for project developments, and finding boundaries for highways or property.

“It’s one of those trades that is being lost. We’re trying to reach out a lot to career and technical education,” said Tim Rynearson, manager of ODOT’s right of way, survey, utilities and agreements.

He said surveyors are also historians, consulting deeds and old landmarks to ascertain property boundaries. A path to this career could involve working under a licensed surveyor, earning an associate’s degree in land surveying, or getting a bachelor’s in geomatics from Oregon State University.

“Kids with a rural background, or who like the outdoors, can be a good fit,” Rynearson said. “We try to schedule these guys so they’re outside on the good days, and doing computer work on the crummy days.”

Although most stations elicited laughs and smiles from the students, one was met with complete silence.

Standing before a car mangled beyond recognition, ODOT employee Paul Price recounted the accident that nearly claimed the lives of his wife, Tricia, and daughter, Sydney Palmer, in June 2016.

It was on Highway 30 toward Haines. A woman under the influence was driving about 100 mph when she pulled out to pass a vehicle. Tricia Price was in the other lane.

“My wife’s car stopped instantly,” he said.

The other car went airborne, flipped 180 degrees, and landed in the ditch where it caught on fire. The driver, Christina Lynn Long, died.

Tricia Price lost a lot of blood. She went first to Walla Walla, then to a Portland hospital. Sydney went to Boise.

“She spent her 18th birthday in the ICU in Boise,” he said.

Met with silence, Paul Price encouraged the teenagers to be careful, and attentive, drivers.

“It only takes a second for your life to change,” he said. “The number one killer of people your age is distracted driving.”