7 Strategies for Construction Workforce Development
BY AsphaltPro Staff
Workforce development continues to be a challenge for many asphalt producers and paving companies. A webinar presented by the Transportation Research Board earlier this year suggested that many of these open jobs will need to be filled by personnel who haven’t been traditionally interested in road materials or construction.
The webinar outlined a number of new initiatives and case studies that offer innovative strategies to recruit the next generation workforce for the construction industry which meets “not just the traditional industry needs, but also the growing demand for individuals skilled in technology, accounting, environmental compliance, and worker health and safety.”
Below, we share seven strategies highlighted during the webinar.
1) Develop a recruitment pipeline.
“We’ve defined workforce development as the employees’ entire experience,” said Alvina Mao, Workforce Development Manager at the Washington State Department of Transportation. This starts when a prospective employee first learns about the agency all the way through their employment with the agency.
WSDOT’s talent pipeline relies on internships, strategic recruitment and community outreach. Not only do they look at project management programs at area colleges from which they can recruit, but they also prioritize training for hiring managers and hiring committees.
“Recruitment is a huge thing for any organization,” Mao said, “and the training you offer your hiring managers is really important.” For example, ensuring quality candidates are offered positions in a reasonable amount of time and supplying HR teams with workforce development resources.
2) Look for employees in unlikely places.
In 2016, the Asphalt Pavement Association of Indiana (APAI) conducted a membership survey about workforce development and discovered that nearly 10 percent of the state’s asphalt industry workforce was projected to retire in five to seven years. That coincided with the 2017 passage of a bill that injected $1.2 billion in additional funding for the state’s highways.
This propelled APAI to take action in a number of ways. They put together a workforce development committee. They grew their scholarship program, which now awards around $50,000 per year. And, they launched a partnership with the Future Farmers of America, a career and technical organization for middle and high school students that promotes agricultural education.
According to APAI Executive Director Kirstin Pauley, FFA members are often ideal candidates for construction jobs, since they often grow up around heavy equipment and “sun-up to sun-down” work; only one child may inherit the family farm; they are located all over the state, including rural areas; and they are often looking for alternative career options to college. The organization also has a large membership, with more than 12,000 members in Indiana alone and 675,000 nationwide.
Pauley herself is a former scholarship recipient during her time at Purdue University. “The scholarship was key to me going to work at an asphalt contractor and working in the industry today,” she said. The scholarship program requires meeting each candidate in person to assess the likelihood that recipients will stay in Indiana and work within the asphalt industry.
Partnership events include #ag2asphalt days where high school students experience an asphalt paving project firsthand, FFA Day at World of Asphalt in 2019, participation at various FFA conventions, career fairs, and email distribution through the FFA.
3) Learn how to motivate millennials.
Despite growing up around the asphalt industry, Janie Gallagher hadn’t considered joining the industry. Now the Marketing Coordinator for Wirtgen American, Gallagher’s father, Dan, was the 2017 chairman for the National Asphalt Pavement Association. Gallagher, however, wanted to follow her passion–music–and was concerned about sustainability and diversity in the asphalt industry.
“As a millennial–and I think I can speak for most of us–we care deeply about our passions,” Gallagher said. “We like knowing that our lives, jobs, and efforts have purpose, that we’re making a difference no matter how small. It’s not a bad quality to have, as long as our employers know it’s something we’re seeking.”
It wasn’t until Gallagher heard NAPA President Audrey Copeland speak in August 2017 that she began to consider a career in the asphalt industry.
“Copeland spoke with intelligence, grace and class, with a hope for sustainability in our industry,” Gallagher said. “She showed me that no industry or opportunity was too male-, age- or opinion-dominated for a young woman to join.”
Diversity was also important to WSDOT, Mao said. “We can’t focus on workforce development without thinking about diversity. That means we have to engage our employees, communities and partners.”
In addition to promoting diversity and appealing to passion and impact-driven millennials, technology could be another useful recruitment tool to bring individuals from other backgrounds into the construction industry.
“In terms of recruitment, it’s actually a really exciting time to be in our industry,” said Tom Harman, Acting Managing Director of the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Innovative Program Delivery. He outlined a number of promising technologies, from next gen roadway sensors to dynamic electric vehicle charging and connected infrastructure. “We never thought a decade ago that asphalt contractors would be hiring people to operate drones around the job site.”
4) Modernize facilities, modernize mindsets.
“We’re competing with some very modern work environments,” Mao said. Amazon, Microsoft and Starbucks are just a few global companies headquartered in Washington State. It can be hard for a state agency to compete with employee nap rooms, catered lunches, and bean bag chairs.
WSDOT has begun to modernize some of its office facilities, but it is also modernizing its mindset by expanding telework options, offering flexible schedules, and even allowing new parents to bring their infants to work for up to 6 months. “Those were some huge wins for the agency.”
Obviously, you can’t bring a baby on a paving train, but WSDOT’s strategies could spur some creative solutions for your company, from improvements around the office, shop or plant, to unique benefits the crew would appreciate.
5) Pay attention to your existing employees
“A lot of decisions can be made at the top of an organization without taking into account what employees think,” Mao said. “Listening and acting on employee feedback has been really big for our agency. It’s been one of our most successful strategies.”
This means not only listening to employee feedback as it arises, but actively pursuing employee feedback through an annual employee engagement survey.
Mao said WSDOT looks specifically at job satisfaction, based on the following questions: Would you recommend your employer as a place to work, and are you happy at work? “We look at the data to figure out if our employees are happy, what makes them happy or unhappy in their roles, and how we could move the needle on those things,” Mao said.
Valuing existing employees also includes competitive compensation and clear career path development. WSDOT also offers tuition reimbursement up to $4,000 per fiscal year and a leadership development program.
6) Track what works–and what doesn’t work.
Pauley shared a few lessons APAI has learned since it began its partnership with the FFA, many of which are relevant for a variety of student outreach activities.
One lesson is the importance of hands-on, impactful outreach.
“You can see their eyes light up when they can be up close and personal with the paving train,” she said. “It’s a lot more effective than handing them literature or even showing them a video.”
APAI has strived for both quality connections, like its #ag2asphalt days, as well as quantity of connections, at the FFA National Convention. “It’s important to weigh the costs and benefits of each initiative,” Pauley said. She added that it may be difficult to establish metrics, since keeping track of the outcome of every encounter can be a multi-year process.
Pauley also stressed the importance of following up; APAI is sure to collect email addresses at all events. “These kids are being bombarded with all kinds of wonderful opportunities after high school, and we want to make sure construction stays top-of-mind,” she said. Connecting with parents, educators and other influencers is also helpful, especially since many parents may hold traditional views on college and may require a shift of mindset.
Media coverage of these types of events has also been helpful, Pauley said. “It’s free, positive media exposure to a very large audience.”
Harman also stressed the importance of “frank discussion and honest appraisal of successes and failures.” And, he recommends sharing success stories of your recruitment efforts to “build some momentum” around these programs.
The FHWA has developed a playbook of best practices for attracting people to the highway construction industry, with help from AASHTO, ARTBA, AGC and US DOL.
7) Communicate the value of construction careers.
“We have to change old-school perspectives of what road construction is,” Pauley said. “We have to show what a great industry this is, how it can be so fulfilling, provide for a family, and be a good career.”
Harman gave an example of how the Construction Association of Western Pennsylvania (CAWP) calls construction apprenticeships “the other four year degree.” He also gave a small homework assignment we can all complete. He suggested developing an elevator pitch to communicate the value of careers in the asphalt industry.
“When people ask what you do, what do you tell them?” Harman asked. “Instead of saying, ‘I work with asphalt,’ maybe next time you’ll say, ‘I link my community together.’”