13 Strategies to Retain Asphalt Workers
Although many industries currently face labor shortages, the asphalt industry has unique factors that make worker retention more challenging. Not only does it often involve hard, hot work, but it takes crews across the city, state, or region. Work is frequently performed at night, and it can also be more dangerous than other professions. Add to that list the fact that asphalt paving is seasonal in much of the United States, and you have a perfect storm to lose members of the workforce.
With a few weeks left in the 2022 paving season, AsphaltPro crowdsourced some strategies to retain this summer’s top talent for 2023.
1. Pay employees well.
It may sound obvious, but paying a fair and competitive wage goes a long way. As one asphalt professional put it on AsphaltPro’s Facebook page, “I don’t do it for a pat on the back.” Or, as another put it, “If you have good help, you have to pay them [well].”
Pat Ferry, estimator and project manager at Aztec Paving Inc., San Diego, said their number one retention strategy is to offer employees roughly 5 to 8% more than their competition. He said it’s easy to find out what other companies offer through the grapevine, adding that some companies have called Aztec directly to ask what they pay employees. “It’s a small industry in San Diego, so it’s easy to keep abreast of what other companies offer so we can offer a fair and competitive wage based on our market.”
2. Benefits matter all year.
Asphalt professional Lance Rickenberg on Facebook commented on the importance of compensation, but also health care (also during the offseason). “Most of the bigger asphalt companies offer year ’round [health] coverage, or some version of it,” he said. This includes his employer, Continental Paving, Hudson, New Hampshire, a family-owned business of roughly 400 employees. “It’s a great company to work for.”
3. Take care of the whole employee.
Glen Powell, paving department coordinator and project manager at Schlouch Incorporated, Blandon, Pennsylvania, said the company strives to promote the overall well-being of its employees. Not only does Schlouch offer numerous wellness activities as part of its health care package, including things like webinars on various health topics and free health screenings, but it also provides access to other services like legal and financial planning advice.
“We look at the well-being of the employee and their families as a whole,” Powell said. Some examples of employees using Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) include writing a will and financial planning for retirement and other goals. “We offer assistance to help our employees achieve their personal goals because we as a company care about them and their families. If we can reduce some worries for our team members, we believe they will be happier and more focused at work.”
4. Develop a solid onboarding experience.
“Starting a new job can be stressful for many people,” Powell said. “We make a concerted effort to make every new employee feel welcome and connected with the team. Just doing a simple once-per-week check-in to see how things are going and if they need help with anything shows leadership is committed to helping the new employee succeed.”
5. Equip the crew properly.
“If people are constantly performing tasks that leave them exhausted at the end of the day, day after day, that reduces the longevity of that person’s working career,” said Alex Berg, CEO of Cratos Equipment. “If they’re exhausted and have to move into another role, now you have to train someone else. That really affects your turnover rate.”
Not only does this apply to having the equipment the crew needs to perform the job safely and successfully, but asphalt pros on social media suggested taking it one step further. For example, they suggested investing in better fitting and cooling safety gear and putting canopies on machines where possible.
6. Don’t micromanage skilled workers.
One asphalt industry professional on LinkedIn stressed the difference between employees during training and a company’s skilled workers. “My number one is I do not tell [my skilled workers] what to do,” she said. “The training process is a different chapter [compared to] skilled workers.”
Adrian Alblas, president at Burnaby Blacktop Ltd., Vancouver, summarized it well: “Trust in people. Do not micromanage.”
7. Treat people right.
Although good pay is important, wrote Juan Sebastian Sartorio Nuñez, an asphalt plant operator for Grinor S.A., Uruguay, treating employees well and making it clear to them that you value their work is extremely important. “Wherever you are treated well, you will return,” he said.
“Respect your people, because without your employees, you are nothing,” said Glenn Pye, a professional in the asphalt/heavy civil industry. “If you’re a supervisor or manager, you are supposed to be a leader.”
“We have a high standard for our leaders to treat people the way they’d like to be treated and give feedback constructively,” said Ryan Kerkvliet, vice president of asphalt paving at Journey Group, Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “It’s hard enough doing this work, dealing with 90-degree heat, traffic, and the traveling public honking at you, so we try to make our work environment as good as we can.”
“If you take care of your employees every year, they will work hard for you and will be there for life,” commented another asphalt professional.
8. Fun helps, too.
Jacob Weins, senior project manager at North Star Contracting Inc., Calgary, Alberta, said management often brings the crew cold drinks on hot days or coffee and donuts to the job site. He also likes to hand out swag to the employees, like hats, shirts and sweatshirts.
Jeff Wilstein of Tuscon Asphalt Contractors, Tuscon, Arizona, recommended keeping treats like a freezer full of ice cream on hand, a refreshing treat after a hot day’s work.
Ferry said Aztec strives to create a professional but fun work environment. “We are here to work and get the job done, but we also like to laugh and joke around,” he said.
9. Show employees a career path forward.
Another tip from Kerkvliet is to show employees opportunities for growth. At Journey Group, this takes the form of career pathing. “So many times, an employee starts in a role and doesn’t get communicated to on how to take the next step,” he said. “We want to show them there is an opportunity to advance if they so choose, and what is expected in order to do that.” Journey Group has several current foremen and superintendents who began with the company as laborers.
10. Schedule employees the way they prefer, when you can.
Although the exact project schedule will likely be subject to the owner, agency, or customer’s calendar, remember that different employees/crews may prefer to work different schedules. For example, one asphalt professional shared with AsphaltPro his experience of quitting after 33 years with the same asphalt contractor when a change in company policy meant he was no longer able to work the hours and days he had become accustomed to.
If a worker’s schedule cannot fit into a new project schedule, being flexible enough to move that worker to a different crew or to a different role, when possible, goes a long way in proving to that worker how much you value his or her skill in your company. Conversely, if a worker is a caregiver in his or her family, or encounters a change in circumstance that requires a change in scheduling for a month or a season, consider carefully whether you can modify work schedules or crewmember roles rather than lose a valued worker for the long-term over a short-term problem.
11. Show your employees you value their opinions.
“We try to keep [our employees] informed on the plans for the day/week,” Kerkvliet said. “We want their input on how the plan could be affected/improved. We want them to feel like a part of the plan and to have buy-in on making the plan happen.”
Powell said Schlouch also maintains an open-door policy. “If an employee has an issue that can’t be resolved with their supervisor, they always have an opportunity to elevate it to the next level for further resolution,” he said. “This is built into our company culture. When employees feel like they have a voice and they are treated fairly, they feel valued.”
12. Cultivate a crew that feels like family.
“The feeling that our crew was a family and we stuck together [through] good and bad kept me coming back,” said one retired asphalt professional on LinkedIn.
After paying employees at the top of the market and illustrating that Journey Group values employees’ opinions, Kerkvliet’s final tip was to do what he can to cultivate a work culture employees enjoy. “Do they enjoy working here? Do they like the team they’re working with?” he said. “That’s the next biggest thing.”
13. Help employees see the fruits of their labor.
Ferry also recommended sharing compliments and feedback from customers on a job well done. “As the project manager, I am usually the only contact with the customer while the work is performed,” he said. “Rarely do the customers actually communicate with my foremen or workers, so when they are satisfied with the work, I always pass it along to my employees. It is very gratifying to know someone is happy with your workmanship.”
At C.W. Matthews Contracting, Marietta, Georgia, superintendent of the asphalt construction division James Kelly likes to show the crew any drone photos and videos he’s taken. “Getting that bird’s eye view of what they’ve done gives them that buy-in and helps them see what we’ve accomplished as a team,” he said. “There’s more to it than just work; there’s pride to it.”