Attracting and retaining the best and brightest employees is a catch-22 of the construction industry. The best and brightest want to work for companies with stellar reputations, but companies achieve outstanding reputations only when they can attract and retain the best and brightest. We asked some of the successful companies we have interviewed what they are doing to recruit and retain. Here is what we found out.
Money, it turns out, is not everything. Ruby Bowry, marketing manager at Walters Group, a Hamilton-based steel construction company that designs, fabricates, and constructs commercial and industrial projects throughout North America, provided insight. “Company A may offer an hourly wage of $20.00 or $30.00 while Company B offers $21.00 or $31.00, and someone could go for the $21.00 or $31.00 hourly wage, but if the manager has poor leadership skills and people hate going to work, they’ll start to wonder if that extra $1.00 per hour worth it. Probably not. People want to feel fulfilled, be part of a productive team, feel that they can advance, and have open conversations with their managers,” she shared.
“There has to be fair compensation, of course. That’s why people work, but there’s something more. There’s the passion of coming to work, feeling you are part of the family, and that kind of corporate culture is important for us here at Walters.”
Respect for employees is key. When Bowry says employees are part of the family, she is sincere. In 2017, when we were preparing a profile on the Walters Group, she suggested we focus on the ironworkers instead. “We don’t often have the opportunity to highlight their incredible ethics,” she told us. “This feature is an excellent way to provide insight into what they do for us – rain or shine, snow or sleet.” (Changing the Skyline, December 2017).
For that article, Darrell LeBoucan, executive director of Canadian affairs and general vice president of Ironworkers International, told us: “Walters has a huge reputation across Canada that draws people to come and work on their projects, and that is from the ownership, down to the management, down to the way they treat their employees, their safety programs, and their skill set. There are different levels of complexity to their projects, and they’re known for taking on some of the most world-class structures in this country. People look to that and want to be part of it, so Walters has no problem drawing really good people because of their reputation.”
Then we went back to take a second look at Brewer-Garret (BG) (Engineering Energy Saving Solutions, November 2017). The company is located in Middleburg Heights, Ohio, employs over 130 engineering and technical professionals, and is dedicated to developing energy-saving design-build solutions.
In 2017, the U.S. Department of Energy selected Brewer-Garret for an indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (IDIQ) energy savings performance contract (ESPC) as a result of BG’s long resume of successful and complex energy projects. This is significant as, of U.S. energy companies eligible to provide opportunities for federal agencies to acquire cost-effective infrastructure upgrades and projects to enhance energy assurance, BG is one of only twenty-one and the only one headquartered in Ohio.
When we talked to Jeff Zellers last year, the vice president said this about the company’s success: “I say without question: ‘It’s the people.’ We have some very smart people who are looking for careers and not jobs, and that’s a big difference. It’s not a place where you come to work from nine-to-five; it’s a place where you come to be part of something.”
While employees are drawn to this noble enterprise that is making a positive impact on the environment, they stay because they are happy. “I love working at BG because the people here are a second family to me,” said Jane Knipp, proposal and branding manager.
“From my coworkers to Jeff (Zellers) and Lou (President Lou Joseph), they all support me in my professional development and my personal life. Recently, my son was sick and was in the hospital, and one of the first phone calls I received was from Lou asking if I needed anything. You don’t get that everywhere you work.”
Industry leaders who want to attract the brightest and best realize that they may have to get more involved in training and education. Walters, for example, has partnered with Mohawk College to meet the looming skills shortage through a two-semester mechanical techniques welding and fabrication certificate program. It has increased the numbers in three-year apprenticeship programs and offers co-op work placements in the trades, engineering, and project management, with many co-op or summer students hired upon graduation from colleges and universities.
Meanwhile, James Hailey, president and chief executive officer of BRR Architecture in Kansas, (Collaborative Design for Everyday Experiences, May 2018), told us, “We pride ourselves on having healthy relationships with the universities in the regions where our (ten) offices are located. We start identifying students in their third and fourth years, and in most of our offices, we hire at least one summer intern, so we get to know them, and we track them through their final years, so there are students graduating who already have eight or nine months of working with us, and they understand our culture and can fit right in with us.”
Culture. The word ‘culture’ keeps coming up in conversation with industry leaders who have been successful in attracting and retaining employees, and although none directly refer to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s ‘Theory of Motivation,’ their words implicitly acknowledge his 1943 paper which proposed a hierarchy of basic human needs.
Financial compensation covers the most basic need for food and shelter, but since companies must be competitive in their offerings there is often not much difference from company to company. What can make a difference when attracting employees are benefits and incentives tailored to accommodate different generations, lifestyles, and skill sets, the importance of as Eric Kontoh, human resources project manager at Walters, pointed out.
Next on Maslow’s hierarchy is safety and security which, in industry, is a matter of life and death, and it is to be expected that people will be drawn to companies with outstanding safety records. Walters, for example, has for past four years received the Council of Senior Administrative Officers (CSAO) first-place award for best safety record in the largest category (over 100,000 man-hours) in Ontario.
Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania-based company, S&R Enterprises (Unparalleled Commitment, June 2017), over three years and 440,000 man-hours completed a vehicle assembly building modification at the Kennedy Space Centre with zero recordable injuries or lost-time accidents. As Mark Yerke, executive vice president, told us, “Our employees are our number one customers, and we want to make sure they go home every day the same way they came to the job site.”
Maslow’s theory also identifies three higher level needs: belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization. As Bowry noted, since workers spend “more time at work than they do with their own families,” they need to feel fulfilled at work. “It’s more about the culture and feeling part of the team. People need to feel they can advance and have open conversations with managers, and I see it here (at Walters Group) because we have that culture.” She went on to say that she had worked for other companies and found the culture at Walters to be extremely positive and encouraging by comparison.
At Brewer-Garrett, Zellers told us that president Lou Joseph “is very hands-on. You’ll see him walk around the office, asking people how they’re doing and what they’re working on. He strongly believes this is his family, and he wants to be part of what’s going on in their lives. When we’re hiring, Lou will do the last interview, and after someone is hired, he’ll do a catch-up to see how things are going with them. We have a beautiful fitness area for the staff, and we have a training area, and that’s all money Lou has but back in the company for his people.”
Knipp concurs. “The executive team at BG has an open-door policy, and they truly stick to it. I can walk into their offices at any point, and they listen. BG has had a lot of growth over the years, but they still operate their day-to-day business like a family. Honestly, what it all boils down to is they just care.”
In addition to well-being, companies need to consider self-esteem. In Where Traditional Craftsmanship Meets Innovative Construction, (August, 2017) Ken Wenham, president and chief executive officer of Roebbelen Contracting Inc. in El Dorado Hills, California, offered this: “We mix employees who’ve been here for ten or twenty years with people fresh out of college, ready to take on the world, and it creates dynamic teams. It’s extremely effective and fun to watch the energy in the room. We say, ‘Here’s a project we need to tackle, and here are the goals for it,’ and we watch them dice it up, break it down, come up with creative solutions to present to the clients,” he explained.
“I think Millennials get a bad rep these days. We hear jokes about the generation that feels entitled and doesn’t want to work, but we don’t see it. Our group of folks in the millennial category are setting the world on fire. Our only challenge is to keep exciting work in front of them and keep them moving.
“They don’t want to be told by senior staff that things are done a certain way because that’s the way it used to be done. They want to know why. So, I ask them, ‘How would you do it?’ They’re happy to tell me, and you know what? They have some pretty darn good ideas.”
Finally, there is the need for self-actualization. Do employees have the opportunity to reach their full potential? The most successful companies ensure they do. “Some are fearful that if they invest in education and training for employees, they are doing it for their competition, but we have to do it,” says Kontoh, “and Walters has a robust [personal development] program.”
As well, companies need to help employees develop career paths. For example, the three Walters Group employees we spoke with for the previous story began their careers as ironworkers trained to Red Seal standards before being hired to supervise significant and challenging projects. Marc Boucher, for example, was site superintendent for the refurbishment of the historic 1866 West Block of the Parliament buildings in Ottawa.
At Brewer-Garrett, Knipp says: “We provide employees with an environment for success. The company constantly supports ongoing training for associates (primarily automation technicians and engineers) to keep them up-to-date and uses only state-of-the-art technology.”
Separated by an international border and very different kinds of construction work, both companies share similar mindsets when it comes to corporate culture, but one that is shared by all successful companies. “It goes right back to our philosophy, ‘If you take care of your employees, they will take care of your customers,’” says Knipp speaking of Brewer-Garrett. And speaking about Walters, Bowry says: “We promote our company as innovative, not only in terms of construction but in terms of taking care of our people, because the foundation of every company is its people, and if you take care of them, you will get results.”