'This has become my family.' North Carolina's new Transportation Secretary is an agency veteran
There's a new leader at the North Carolina Department of Transportation. Joey Hopkins has spent his entire career at NCDOT. Governor Roy Cooper appointed the Rockingham County native and N.C. State alum transportation secretary in October.
WUNC’s Bradley George recently spoke to Hopkins at his office in Downtown Raleigh.
This conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
You have billions of dollars coming in, thanks to the bipartisan infrastructure law. How has some of that money already being put to use here in North Carolina?
Joey Hopkins: "The bipartisan infrastructure law has been a great benefit to the department. Historically, we get somewhere between $1 and $1.5 billion in federal dollars come into North Carolina every year. And through the bipartisan infrastructure law, we got an increase of about 20% on most of our capital programs, and another 30% on our transit programs. So that's been a great benefit for us. We've been able to help buy new buses for transit fleets across the state, we've been able to keep other projects on schedule our capital projects through our capital program. And you see it all across the state. And whether there's highway expansion or sidewalk projects, or traffic signals, we're putting that money to good use."
Everybody's dealing with inflation. And certainly, when you think about raw materials that you need for construction — steel, concrete, gravel, pavement, etc. — those things cost more. How are you able to balance the inflationary pressure of dealing with that situation with the fact that you do have this additional funding for these projects?
Hopkins: "That’s something that, of course, we're dealing with, like everybody is across the country and even the world since COVID. Here, there's a lot of issues with the supply chain. There's a lot of issues now with what people are calling great resignation and having enough manpower — not only in-house manpower — but also with our contractors and consultants that that do work with us. And so, one thing we've been able to do with the funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law, and additional funding that our own state legislature has granted us, we are now recipients of a portion of the sales tax that goes into our program. That's helped us to offset some of those inflationary challenges that we've seen and not delay projects as much as we were having to. There still have been some delays overall. But we've been able to keep the most important projects on schedule and keep them pushing forward."
You mentioned staffing issues, and I spoke to one of your HR people a couple of months ago for a story. You'd launch this partnership program in your different division offices to help with some of the staffing issues. How's that been going so far?
Hopkins: "Overall, we're struggling to get our vacancy rate down. Our vacancy rate right now is hovering around 21%. Our turnover rate is still pretty high. But we are seeing an uptick in applications that we're receiving for job postings. I think the numbers that I've seen, we've hired over 500 people since July within the department to help offset some retirements and people going into other jobs. We've got two great programs, that we're working with our Historically Black Colleges and Universities and also our Minority Serving Universities. One is an internship program, where we hire summer interns. Another is a fellow program, where we hire recent graduates of those universities and bring them on to a two-year program with the department. We've had, I think the number is over 25 recruitment events this year. Our HR offices (are) being more focused on recruiting where before we would go to these different job fairs at universities. Now we're going to the departments that are having specific job fairs. As an example, a civil engineering job fair, to be more of a direct recruiting effort there. And we're being successful. We're just not seeing the numbers change a lot in the short term."
DMV is part of DOT and there have been some challenges particularly in The Triangle with wait times at DMV offices. I know DMV is trying to work to bring those wait times down. Has there been any progress on that? Any updates you can share?
Hopkins: "Wait times is something we struggle with. The bigger issue is the number of transactions that we have to do. We have done some changes, and we continue to look for ways to improve. Some things we've done, we've extended office hours in many of our offices in urban areas. So, now we're opening at 7 a.m., at over 40 of our 115 offices. We also offer some Saturday hours. I would also encourage people to look and see if they can do their transaction online. And if you don't know, you can always call (919-715-7000) to find out whether you can do something online or not to get help with that."
You’re somebody who spent your entire career in this agency. When you started out 30 some years ago, did you ever think that you were going stay with the DOT? Or that you would actually be leading this organization?
Hopkins: "No, I never had a dream of that type. I look back on my career and I started when I was still in college as a temporary. At the time, I was just trying to pay the bills and get a job that helped do that. It’s something I liked doing and I loved it so much. This has become my family. I've had career goals over the years. Some of those I have met, some others I have not. But even in the recent past I never dreamed I would be Secretary of Transportation. I'm proud to be a leader of this organization and be part of this team."