Does the thought of finding and retaining employees keep you awake at night? At the American Society of Concrete Contractors Annual Conference in Chicago, IL, more than 20 participants gathered at 5:30 a.m. to discuss the employee shortage and possible steps to remedy the situation moving forward.
First, we must acknowledge this is not a new problem. Over the years it has remained on the list of contractor concerns. The urgency has risen to where it is often the most citied obstacle to growing the business. Most industries are currently experiencing a labor shortage. The difference is that construction work has developed a stigma that is drying up the pipeline of future employees. It is often viewed as an unappealing career option by the emerging workforce.
The construction industry has historically done a poor job of marketing itself. It carries a misunderstood reputation as a ‘dirty’ job and not something many young people aspire to pursue as a profession. Most young people are unaware of the many career paths available in the construction industry. Many are not familiar with the transformation that has occurred on the jobsite. This includes the widespread use of high-tech layout and design tools, as well as ergonomic and automated equipment that makes life easier and also requires more advanced skills. In most cases, this is no longer back-breaking work performed by low-skilled labor.
Combat Social Norms
Young people have been taught that there is one path to success. That path leads to a university or college. From an early age, teachers frequently ask students which university they plan on attending. Higher education becomes the expectation. If you are smart enough, you go to a university or prestigious college. If you ‘fail’ to make it into one of these, you settle for a junior college. If you ‘fail’ to get into junior college, then you go to work in the trades.
This stigma leaves few students actually wanting to pursue the trades as their first choice. Students would rather have their parents and peers view them as successful. This is a powerful social norm that is difficult to change, and it will not be an easy or quick transformation.
In actuality, the one career path system just does not work for everyone and students who excel in the trades or future craftsmen should be encouraged, not viewed as failures. Skilled craftsmen are in very short supply and there are few apprentices who will eventually replace them. One of the contractors on the panel shared that his payroll clerk was amazed how the craftsmen in the field actually made more than most of the office personnel.
One factor changing viewpoints is the mounting student loan debt crisis. Many students are graduating with debt that often reaches six figures. They are competing for jobs that don’t necessarily support these debt loads.
By entering the vocational trades upon graduation, many of these students could avoid massive debt while still learning a highly sought after skill.
Market to Youth
The negative view youth have of the construction market is really a marketing challenge for those in the construction field. The industry needs to illustrate all of the career paths available. This includes potential promotions and salary levels.
You need to target all youth, not just those who will not make it into a university. The reality is that some people are ‘wired’ to build things. These are students who either like working with their hands or gain satisfaction from seeing something that they have built. One concrete construction firm owners, for instance, owned a successful business consulting firm prior to starting his contracting business. He changed professions because he liked building things, although he admitted business consulting paid more.
Students who are ‘prewired’ for building are out there. It is your job to identify these individuals and attract them to your business. It is important to realize that being ‘wired’ for building and actually possessing the necessary skills are not the same thing. Most schools have eliminated vocational education programs and there are not many kids left who grew up on farms. Unless a student’s parent was a carpenter, plumber or tradesman, he or she likely experienced limited exposure to practical experience. You will need to find that student and provide the appropriate training.
Social media is a good way to reach prospects. Remember, these students are probably too young to be using Linkedin. To reach this audience you will need to consider the channels they frequent, such as Twitter, Youtube, Instagram and Facebook.
An approach one contractor at the conference reported using included testimonials from younger workers in the company. These video testimonials included what it was like to work for the company and what a typical day looked like.
Work with the Schools
Schools have limited budgets. Most have dropped vocational programs to maximize usage of available funds. But most schools are open to outside help. Several of the contractors at the round table had positive experiences working with their local schools.
Realize that most schools do not currently have the resources or capability to provide the training. That becomes your job. Investigate the willingness to set up an on-the-job training program to expose students to the career paths available in the industry.
This does require an investment on the part of a contractor. Students can’t simply be placed on the jobsite. There are restrictions on what they will be permitted to do and a structured program will need to be put in place. The school provides the students and it is up to the contractor to provide the education. But the benefits can be very rewarding.
One company was presenting participants in the program with certificates of completion and an offer to work for the company upon graduation. The certificate of completion may not sound like much, but it was a big deal to students who participated it. Some had never received this type of recognition before.
Examine Your Benefits
One of the more interesting comments came from a well-established East Coast contractor. This union contractor reported the company had no problem finding an ample supply of workers. The contractor admitted the union benefits and pay were a big draw, but advised others to review their pay and benefits. Not every region of the country offers the same cost of living. Employees should not have to work more than 60 hours a week to earn a decent standard of living in the regions where they live.
The drawback to this approach is that it is not adding additional workers to the overall employee pipeline. By increasing the wages, you may be able to attract skilled labor from your competitors. This can actually lead to a bidding war that drives up the cost of operation.
Don’t Overlook Vets
It should go without saying that military veterans are a great source of future employees. These people often have comparable skills to succeed on the jobsite and many in the room had success hiring veterans.
It was obvious that contractors at this conference have put a lot of thought into attracting future employees. With the pipeline at critically low levels, this is an issue you cannot afford to ignore. Develop and plan now if you have not already. This issue is not going to go away any time soon. No one can solve this problem for you.
The youth that are ‘wired’ for building are out there. You need a plan to target these potential employees and convince them that there is a career path that best suits their interests.