Where to Find Workers Today, How to Retain Them for Tomorrow
BY Sandy Lender
Asphalt producers and contractors don’t need a litany of stats from the U.S. Department of Labor to remind them of what they see day in and day out: more workers are needed in the industry to help build and maintain the roads and bridges that connect our communities and move our commerce. Rather than bemoan the problem, let’s look at some ways to solve it.
Cash is Only One Benefit
The answer is not necessarily throwing more money at incoming workers, although it is one piece of the puzzle we’ll discuss below. Depending on the pool from which you pull new employees, you could receive government incentives for training and monies for wage reimbursement. For example, hiring veterans who already understand a structured, team environment and often have transferable skills in equipment repair, is a win-win with the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) incentives available to employers. (Use organizations such as GI Jobs, Helmets to Hardhats, Hire Heroes USA and others to get connected with skilled and trainable labor.)
While a competitive wage remains one of the hot topics out here, it’s only one part of the hiring package. An industry source in the Midwest who asked to remain anonymous, shared the experience of interviewing a candidate who ultimately chose to work for a shipping logistics company at the base pay of $15 per hour in mid-2021. The industry veteran explained that the 17-year-old would receive, in addition to $15 per hour, a tuition reimbursement. “The requirement would be that he had to stay for at least one year on the job, then he got tuition reimbursement from $5,000-$8,000.” The $8,000 allowance kicked in if he matriculated in a school local to the area.
The asphalt industry does not necessarily require an advanced degree from each member of its workforce, as Mike Rowe shared with us in our 2018 article. To match Target, Walmart, Amazon and other large corporations’ college tuition reimbursement plans perpetuates the misconception that everyone must have a college degree to succeed in life.
Frank Boecker serves as the human resources manager for electrical contractor Sunwest Electric, Anaheim, California, and testified on behalf of the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) before the U.S. House Committee on Small Business Subcommittee on Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Workforce Development Nov. 4, 2021, regarding the importance of community colleges, trade schools, and career and technical education programs for the construction industry. Boecker advocated for continued investment in apprenticeship programs, craft courses, and career and technical education programs.
ABC shared his comments: “For too long, the definition of success messaged to young Americans is that a college degree is a necessary requirement for a good career, ignoring the value and benefits of community college programs, apprenticeship programs and trade schools. We must continue to spotlight the opportunities for young people and individuals looking for a career through more affordable options. In our case, a free, earn-while-you-learn, four-year education that provides the skills needed for financial independence and a rewarding career.”
Sean Rizer, the CFO for Harding Group, Indianapolis, Indiana, explained clearly how we in industry can encourage suitable programs for educating future workers. “I don’t think a college education is a must in helping educate our field team. There are training programs offered through various vocational sources and industry trade associations that need additional support to raise awareness. These programs specific to the skilled trades do not get enough support both from a funding standpoint as well as recognition.”
Rizer hopes to see industry support programs such as MikeRoweWorks and to get the word out that our industry offers a lucrative career without college debt.
“As technology becomes a bigger part of the construction industry (paving as well), I hope we can use that to attract new and talented individuals into the skilled trades. In my experience, a person new to the industry can make just as much if not more than certain professions that require a college degree. We hope to educate and encourage our employees and those in the industry to strongly consider this route to be free from any college debt and make a very competitive working wage. Employers will need to offer, as a paid benefit, this type of training where employees learn how to get cross-trained and are able to do everything/most things on a paving crew. I would never advocate against a college education; however, I strongly believe as an industry, we need to continue pushing the benefits of working in the skilled trades.”
Jay Winford, president of Prairie Contractors LLC in Louisiana, and outgoing chairman of the National Asphalt Pavement Association (NAPA), shared, “I have worked for two other owners who offered free college tuition to employees’ children. This was a great benefit, which not only provided a great gift but also opened the door to possible new and future employees. It was a great ‘culture builder.’”
Going back to the 17-year-old who chose a shipping logistics company: “The other item he received, because it was so hard to get dependable people, was $300 a week, which was almost 50% retention bonus, per week. Basically, if he showed up on time and followed procedure, he and everybody else would get $300 per week just for showing up and being retained.”
Not every asphalt contractor can afford to increase their bids to accommodate paying every member of the crew an additional $300 per week to compete with major companies in their regions. Doug Ramsthel, an executive vice president and partner at Burnham Benefits, a Baldwin Risk Partners company, tells us not every contractor has to.
“My suggestion is not to match what every other company is doing, but to focus on what will be attractive to the type of employees (demographic) that will be best suited for driving the business of the asphalt industry,” Ramsthel said. He listed the following as intangibles employees are looking for:
- Career path;
- A sense of belonging and purpose;
- A good work environment;
- Flexibility; and
- Good managers.
“Focusing on the intangibles employees are looking for, versus leading with pay, could be effective. College tuition may not be appropriate, but perhaps some sort of a savings/contribution account for other things that are important, like a car allowance, contribution toward purchase of a home (even if a small amount) or trade school that is more practical to the industry. But lead with and develop the intangible.”
Address the Needs of Caregivers
Modern society has taught us that the nuclear family is an unnecessary construct, thus many industries now experience the problem of single parents trying to balance career and child-rearing on their own. Even in families that are intact, women are often the designated caregivers, which means childcare and eldercare emergencies necessitate a woman of asphalt leave the work site to tend to people she loves. When an employer makes it clear that such care is understood and accommodated, the employee can feel secure in her employment, validated and nurtured.
Amber Lee Watkins of Watkins & Sons Paving Inc., Seffner, Florida, shared how important it is to not only provide a place for women on the crew, but also to provide a place for their children. “We’ve been blessed because I’ve had my mother-in-law watch my kids,” Watkins said. Between herself and her sister-in-law, “I have four kids, a nephew and nieces for her to watch. We were running a daycare service. We work in agriculture, too. And in that industry, women have always brought their children to work. You don’t want to be away from your children, especially when they’re young. Providing a place where they can be at work with you is valuable.”
She shared how locating a daycare facility on the company property also gives children an opportunity to “see” what parents do and learn of the industry. “A lot of children don’t know what their parents do for a living,” Watkins said. The setup at Watkins & Sons allows youth to gain interest in the industry. “The memories I’m building with my kids are the jobs we’re doing. When my kids drive down a road in the future, they’ll know we paved that.”
Not all companies have the luxury of developing a central daycare center on the company property. When speaking with Mary Katherine Harbin of Maymead Inc., Hickory, North Carolina, at a Caterpillar event, she shared that finding a way to help employees with childcare was on her heart. The situation Maymead managers—and many other contractors—face, is that of logistics. Crewmembers don’t always start the day from the same location; projects range dozens to hundreds of miles from home base. That means asking workers to bring children to a daycare center on a property in one town, then drive to a job on a highway 200 miles away, would be more of a hindrance than a help.
Management at Superior Boiler, Hutchinson, Kansas, is considering offering a “school day” shift in addition to first and second shifts. This would not be the typical 8:00 to 5:00 shift, thus would accommodate those workers who must get children to school or daycare.
“We’re considering creative solutions,” Marketing Coordinator Christina Nuttmann said. “Our management is willing to think outside the box.”
Maybe your company can provide childcare onsite, and make provisions or offer a stipend for childcare offsite for the far-reaching projects. Consider whether that overhead can be built into estimating and bidding a project far from home base or a project that will require night work.
Steve Jackson, vice president of operations for N.B. West Contracting, Pacific, Missouri, pointed out the new Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act (IIJA) will bring much in the way of non-traditional paving. “There’s going to be a lot of nighttime work,” Jackson said. That means workers need to find a babysitter to watch children overnight, which can cost around $1,000 per week. Unless the employer is able to assist employees with that cost, “There goes the paycheck.”
When you’re able to offer these intangibles to employees, you can build the culture that encourages workers to recommend your company to friends and family who may be in a job search. Rizer shared: “Most new hires come via word of mouth from existing employees as they share conversations with their peer group. If an employee feels like the company he works for is an employer of choice and a place he would recommend working, he will already be recruiting without consciously doing it.”
“A best-in-class, closely held construction firm can offer a very unique and satisfying environment for its employees,” Winford said. “Typically, they offer a transparent and sometimes rapid path to promotion and assumption of responsibilities. They can also enhance the workplace in a ‘family type’ manner where more focus is on the employee/co-worker’s happiness, training and safety. They are not ‘just a number.’ I’ve seen some small businesses offer lunches, which are shared together. This type of benefit is a great way to show gratitude and appreciation to everyone.”
Attracting women to the construction industry has been possible since 1953 when the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) formed—then called Women in Construction of Fort Worth—to be a support network. More recently organizations such as NAWIC and Women of Asphalt (WofA) actively recruit for our industry, which helps fulfil one of the five ways Andre Claudio suggested government leaders develop future infrastructure workers in his Nov. 17, 2021, article for route-fifty.com. He lists the following tactics for us:
- Focus on career paths;
- Emphasize high-gross jobs;
- Strengthen planning and training;
- Ensure equity and inclusion; and
- Experiment with new projects.
Respect All the Skills
“Take advantage of continuing education for everyone,” Winford said. “The world, particularly our industry, is changing very fast. Our younger employees are awesome with technology and can easily take advantage of on-line educational resources.”
Jackson said we’re not making enough accommodations for the new workforce. An example he gave is of older plant managers looking askance at the younger plant workers having their phones out in the control house. While an older employee might at first view the use of a smart phone in the workplace as a sign of “goofing off,” the worker may be merely doing his or her job quite efficiently.
“There are QR codes all over the plant for maintenance,” Jackson pointed out. “You have got to have your phone out for that.” As owners and managers, we need to be sure veteran employees aren’t making “the new guy” feel chastised for merely doing his job the way he’s supposed to.
A similar sentiment was highlighted during a recent call with a marketing manager for one of AsphaltPro’s advertisers. The person shared that during a corporate meeting, the marketing team demonstrated to the sales team how specific sales had come about through marketing materials being shared across platforms. The direct correlation between “playing on social media” and getting a call from a potential customer was made.
When such revelations happen, the whole team can see that it’s worth the time to create visuals, share information in trade publications and comment on stories online. The point is an older workforce may not immediately see the value of a newer paradigm, but no employee should be made to feel inferior for it. Instead, managers and corporate culture can work to ensure younger workers coming to the industry are welcomed and their grasp of technology is incorporated into efficient processes.
Bart Ronan, the CEO of Trux, suggested social media can work to your advantage for more than attracting business; use it to showcase a positive work culture to attract new hires. “Social media platforms are an easy, cost-efficient, and effective first step in connecting with potential employees,” Ronan shared. “Business profiles are highly visible and offer a relatable way to tell your construction business’ story and showcase individual workers. Through your social media presence, potential candidates can visualize what it would be like to work on your team. Remember, your best next hire may actually be employed but unhappy in their situation. Social media gives them a way to find out about your business and feel like they know what it would be like to work for you, even before they apply.”
Ronan offered some specific advice. “Choose one or two platforms and focus on creating a robust business profile with a strong and consistent voice that potential employees can identify with. This is your opportunity to craft the voice of your business, engage more followers, and help potential employees visualize themselves in your company and with your culture. The end result is that people will want to work for you, regardless of the position.”
For its Hiring Day Oct. 22, 2021, Superior Boiler used social media as one method of alerting potential new employees. Nuttmann emphasized that the team promoted the event heavily. “We had it on electronic billboards in town and on social media. We posted not just ‘we’re hiring,’ but ‘we’re having a hiring day,’ listing the specific day and times.”
The point to having a hiring day all to themselves on their own site was to narrow down the pool of candidates to exactly who they wanted. The team had participated in a big community hiring event, which Nuttmann described as not successful for the companies that participated. “In this area, people are job-hopping and receiving sign-on bonuses each time they change jobs. We would like to hire and retain, so we were interested in attracting people from outside our industry; this way we weren’t ‘stealing’ someone from a neighbor in industry. We wanted people to come to our site and have them see what we do here.”
The event was a success. “Fifty-two people came to our Hiring Day. We hired 12.”
Some tips she shared from the day include having tables set up for candidates to complete paperwork and meet with a hiring manager in addition to having tour guides ready to take individuals and groups around the site to learn about different areas or processes that are of most interest to them. “We have a safety form all visitors fill out,” she explained. “We provided candidates with a pair of safety goggles and ear plugs for their tour.”
Bringing workers on site also gives your company a chance to share what training or on-the-job learning opportunities you offer. Let’s face it, not every high school graduate can clean the nozzles on a roller’s spray bar or knows why that’s a smart thing to do. On-the-job training and earn-while-you-learn information was a part of every source’s discussion when preparing this article. Training is a given. Continuing education is expected. If you’re not offering this to your workers, you’re not competing with the rest of the market.
“All management should be on constant watch for a ‘rising star,’” Winford said. “They need to be nurtured and offered any additional on-the-job training or external continuing education.”
An employee who’s willing to learn is one our industry wants to nurture. We can encourage them to embark on a lucrative career in the asphalt industry and learn alongside their peers.
“You might not be a code welder, but if you can read a tape measure and learn, come on in,” Nuttmann said.