Mike Rowe Shares How to Attract Good Workers
BY Sandy Lender
During a national industry meeting in 2018, an anonymous source spoke to a small group of the difficulty his company currently has finding skilled laborers. It’s a challenge many in the construction industry experience at this time of record-low unemployment numbers.
“An echo we hear throughout the industry is a need for people,” Lennie Loesch said. He’s the CEO of Stansteel/Hotmix Parts of Louisville, Kentucky. At this time of year especially, he and his team are in deep discussions with asphalt mix producers who are upgrading and updating equipment over the off season. He shared that mix producers want to find people who know and like the industry, and then, “look at what they’re doing to invest in their people.”
What producers and contractors alike invest in often includes training—on the job, in the classroom, at technical conferences, etc. I would be remiss if I failed to mention the Asphalt Paving 101 course that AsphaltPro Magazine developed with industry consultant John Ball.
That kind of online course gives the training personnel or HR director at the company the chance to lead a classroom full of paving crewmembers or to give individuals their self-directed coursework in the office. It’s designed to let young men and women—or veteran workers—learn via videos and listening instead of via lectures and textbooks. That’s only one form of investing in the people on your team.
This Jan. 20-23, 2019, the National Asphalt Pavement Association (NAPA) brings television personality Mike Rowe to its annual meeting on Marco Island, Florida, as a keynote speaker. Companies that invest in travel and leadership training for their people will have the opportunity to interact with Rowe as he discusses the work we do. Rowe shared his thoughts on training, and its role in safe workplaces, with AsphaltPro magazine:
“Obviously, training is key, and the rules of OSHA still apply. But it’s a mistake, I think, to rely entirely on protocol and compliance. Just because you’re in compliance, doesn’t mean you’re out of danger.
“I’ve always bristled at the ‘Safety First’ mentality, not because safety isn’t important—it’s critical. But because it’s just not honest. If safety were truly ‘first,’ we’d never assume any level of risk. Thus, the roads would never get built. Nor would anything else. Companies love to tell their employees that their safety is the number one priority, but there’s an unintended consequence of doing so. If an 18-year old is led to believe that someone cares about his safety more than he does, that will foster complacency. And complacency is the biggest reason people get hurt. In other words, training programs are only effective when they emphasize personal responsibility in conjunction with compliance. Both are important, but nothing does more to avoid injury than an individual who knows that his safety is ultimately his responsibility.”
To train a new employee, you have to get that worker in the door. For the past few decades, high school students have been encouraged to shy away from construction. I asked Rowe how we overcome the mindset that everyone should go to university and aspire to a computer-related job.
“The short answer is better PR. The skilled trades already offer great wages, great benefits, and the opportunity for advancement. That’s the reality. For a lot of people, though, that’s not the perception. And when it comes to the definition of a ‘good job,’ perception is reality.
Millions of people genuinely believe trade jobs are dead-end jobs, because so much in pop culture reinforces that simple misperception. Likewise, we’ve gotten it into our heads that a college education is the best path for the most people. We need to challenge that belief head on. We have to affirmatively confront the stigmas, stereotypes, myths and misperceptions that discourage millions of people from pursuing the 7 million jobs that are currently open. Then, we need to dispute the ridiculous idea that any form of education other than a four-year degree is ‘alternative,’ or in any way subordinate. At the same time, we need to tell true stories of people who prospered as the result of mastering a skill. This is critical. The evidence is on our side, but the PR has sucked. To overcome misperceptions, we have to offer up better messaging.”
What does that better messaging look like?
“It varies,” Rowe said. “But I can tell you what it doesn’t look like—it doesn’t look like anything traditional. Companies have to stop trying to recruit new talent in the traditional way. Stop relying on messages that look and feel like they were produced in 1985. Don’t oversell.
Anything that feels like an advertisement will be greeted with skepticism. Anything that feels like it was approved by your HR department or signed off on by legal will fall flat. I’m not saying to ignore HR and legal (God forbid), I’m just saying they’ve never done anything to make a recruitment message more persuasive. Be authentic. Kids today have a different set of expectations, many of which are unrealistic. But they also have a finely tuned bullshit meter.
They know when they’re being solicited. Tell the honest truth about the opportunities that exist within your industry. Use social media. Don’t hire actors. Let your employees or your customers make your case for you, but don’t let it become a typical testimonial. Those no longer work.”
One company that put its real employees out in front of potential workers is Brooks Construction Company of Ft. Wayne, Indiana. The story of the company’s 2018 safety award from the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) appears here and its work attracting new blood to our industry appears all over the Midwest.
“We are working with the Asphalt Pavement Association of Indiana (APAI) and the Future Farmers of America (FFA) to promote the construction industry to those students that like to live and work on farms,” President Andy Brooks said. “The national FFA convention is being held in Indiana this year and there will be a booth onsite with local contractors reaching out to over 70,000 students. Further, one of our employees helped lead an effort in the spring [May 2] to promote our industry at the Indiana FFA Leadership Center, where the parking lot was repaved by a group of Indiana asphalt companies. One hundred and sixty students witnessed the preparation and paving of the lot. Brooks Construction, along with other contractors, was onsite, talking with the students and educating them on the career opportunities within the asphalt industry.”
Encouraging students to consider a career in a trade is only one part of the battle. Many schools have abandoned the classes that would foster an interest in construction. The instant gratification of paving a road, fixing an engine or building a house isn’t necessarily taught at any level.
“We are working with local schools to inject industrial trades back into the school curriculum,” Brooks shared. “We are ambassadors with BYF (Build Your Future) that goes to over 40 local schools in our area. We have over 12 ambassadors here at Brooks that can discuss our construction industry along with other construction trades jobs to all students in the high school. We have attended over 15 job fairs this year given by community workforce development groups, colleges and our high schools.”
In the northeast, members of the Massachusetts Aggregate and Asphalt Pavement Association (MAAPA) were working during 2017 and 2018 to get a trades-focused curriculum in a local technical college. The course work and information was meeting with success until the school officials decided to immediately invest in health sciences curriculum development, according to MAAPA Chairwoman Jan Callahan. She’s on the team seeking a new institution to lead the initiative to bring a solid, asphalt-based curriculum to the area.
The team’s experience may be disheartening at first, but can be overcome. Rowe shared his take on the vocational school angle and why it can seem an uphill battle: “I hate to generalize, but by and large, I’m afraid the reception will not be positive. Many counselors are still compensated on the number of students they steer into a college or university. Many also believe—as do many parents—that jobs that don’t require college are for people who lack the intelligence to pursue a four-year degree. The best we can hope for is a counselor that’s willing to put ALL the options on the table and is conscious of the fact that a cookie-cutter approach to education simply doesn’t work. Show them the facts. Show them the data. Show them the advantages of learning a skill and going to work without a $50,000 debt to pay off. The facts are on our side—we just need to do a better job of sharing them.”
Those facts include excellent wages. As Rowe indicated, the trades can teach a skill on the job without the heavy student loans. As Stansteel’s Loesch indicated, the trades offer financial security. Loesch stated that the idea of encouraging white-collar jobs with the heavy student loan debt is not in every student’s best interest. “Unless a technical degree such as engineering or science is selected, so many degrees offer marginal value. Most financial advisors would calculate a very poor return on investment. It’s irrational, because, quite frankly, a front end loader operator will make more than any college graduate when you factor in salary, insurance, benefits, and so on.”
We’ve done a disservice to workers by letting institutionalized education lead them astray. By showing them the fulfilling and lucrative careers available in construction—and in asphalt specifically—we can bring good workers back to the industry.