Two years ago, Krystal Strassman of DRS Paving and Asphalt Reheat Systems, Fitchburg, Wis., was looking for new employees. A local radio station was having a drive-by job fair where they’d be handing out 2,000 bags of application materials for job openings in the community. So, Strassman signed DRS Paving up.
“I only got one guy, and he wasn’t even qualified,” she said. It was a complete failure.
Everyone knows that good employees are hard to find, or, as Strassman puts it, “Finding new employees sucks.” And it gets harder mid-season, she said, when you might be balancing a bunch of jobs while looking for more help.
Not only is the industry faced with an aging workforce and the challenge of appealing to young people, but it’s also trying to entice workers who may have left the industry during the recession.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in the construction industry reached to 7.6 million in January 2006 before bottoming out in 2011 at 5.4 million and has steadily increased each year since. In January 2016, there were an estimated 6.6 million construction jobs.
As construction employment is expected to continue to climb in the coming years, finding good employees will be challenging. But there are some things you can do to improve your chances.
“You have to play to your advantages,” Strassman said. “Think about what you do better or differently than everyone else?” For her, that’s offering a work schedule that works with her employees’ schedules. “We don’t work on the weekends, we don’t send them all over the place, so they’re home every night even if they work long hours.”
To do this right, Strassman said you have to know your employees. Although she knows that her employees would be able to make more money at a larger company, her crew tends to include people with families who might not be willing to work 80 hours a week and travel all the time.
“You’re going to have a lot of turnover in that type of environment,” Strassman said. “We’re a great place for family-oriented guys. That’s what we push.”
“For us the proof is in the pudding,” Strassman said about this policy. The company’s prep foreman has been with them for 35 years, the plant manager, 40 years, and another employee just retired after 30 years with DRS.
Motivate your employees
“Find out what makes your guys tick,” Strassman said. Each guy on your crew might be motivated by something different, and knowing that can help you keep them happy.
Key motivations Strassman has seen include a schedule that works for families, opportunity for advancement, variety throughout the day, a fun work environment or money.
One way DRS Paving is motivating employees is through bonuses based on work quality.
“The office didn’t want callbacks and the guys wanted more money, so we started our bonus system,” Strassman said. “If we’re not having call backs, their year end bonuses will reflect that.”
Another thing Strassman does to keep her crew around is offering suggestions for winter work.
“I had a few guys leave us for FedEx because they couldn’t keep busy during the winter,” Strassman said. So, she and her crew often help each other find jobs to do in the winter.
Strassman also makes the crew feel important by showing them they matter to her and her family.
“We’ll buy them new t-shirts, new boots, whatever. I want them to know that I appreciate them,” Strassman said. For example, when her employees started complaining about the smell of the raincoats, Strassman immediately went out and bought new ones. Her mom, Cheryl, also stocks the office freezer with ice cream bars.
“The little things go a long way.”
Look in the right places
Recently, Strassman took out ads in a handful of small newspapers from surrounding farming communities.
“Those are the kids I want. They grew up on a farm, they have mechanical ingenuity, common sense and a strong work ethic,” she said. “They know that they’ve gotta wake up early, put their boots on, and they won’t be coming home until the last cow is milked. It’s no 9-to-5.”
“After those ads, guys just started coming out of the woodwork.” She counted almost 15 perfect candidates walking through her door after the ad campaign. “I haven’t had that in three years combined,” she said, when she was using mostly Craigslist and radio ads.
Although Craigslist was her main recruiting tool before, Strassman said the results were nothing compared to the newspaper ads. “I struck gold; I found something that worked really well in my market,” she said.
“You have to think like the employee—where are they looking for work,” Strassman said. “If you want someone to drive your truck, you might not find him on Facebook.”
In her newspaper ad, Strassman wanted to be sure to attract the right candidates, so she was sure to mention that they care about hiring genuinely good people and that drug tests are required by the company’s insurance provider.
“My mom was a little concerned about putting that in the ad, but we would almost get a guy hired to have it fall through after the urine test,” Strassman said. At $200 per test—plus the time it took to go through the hiring process—being upfront about expectations has been really beneficial.
Look to the youth
“After the downsizing that our industry has experienced over the past eight years, as the market improves, we’ll most certainly experience a shortage of qualified workers, supervisors and managers,” said Jay Winford of Prairie Contractors in Louisiana. To solve this issue, Winford suggests increased support for construction education and community vocational schools.
“Finding young and dedicated people to work in a sometimes difficult and challenging job is very much an issue,” said Dan Staebell, regional director for the north central region for Asphalt Pavement Alliance, Lanham, Md. “Companies are looking at every way possible to entice the ‘new workforce’ into our industry.”
Although most of Strassman’s new hires aren’t fresh out of high school or college—after all, one of her key benefits is most appealing to people with families—she still actively engages young people to be a part of the industry.
For example, a handful of local builders recently brought some kids from area high schools and technical schools to a new housing development to “show them the ropes” on a handful of industries, from HVAC to asphalt.
“The HVAC teams focus a lot on money as a benefit, but for me, I tell them that the company is just a good place to work and you get to be outside,” she said. Another key point? “I tell them to stay close to whatever excites them.”
“If you like asphalt but don’t want to run the paver, you’ll find out all sorts of other jobs in the asphalt industry that you could have if you stay close,” Strassman said. Her own situation was a perfect example.
“I knew I wanted to do something in asphalt that wasn’t laying it.” So, she became a project estimator and loves being outside, meeting new people, and the little office work she does. “Maybe you don’t really want to be a mason, but maybe the best job for you is actually selling concrete to the mason. There’s something out there for everyone, you just can’t get caught in the fine tuning when you’re that young.”
Another example from the industry comes from the Colorado Asphalt Pavement Association, which has developed a poster to hang in high schools throughout the state to introduce the benefits of working in the asphalt industry.
“One thing is for sure,” Staebell said. “Young people who enter these industries will get it in their blood and find a very high level of accomplishment each and every day.”
Know when to quit
“I would rather have an employee with lots of motivation and no skills than a skilled employee with no motivation,” Strassman said, “because I can teach the skills, but I can only do so much for the motivation. You either want to work or you don’t.”
DRS offers employees every tool to be successful, but Strassman knows it’s the employee’s job to take the initiative—they have to want it.
“My dad always said to guys if they weren’t happy they could go home,” Strassman said. “Even if he were on his last employee, he’d send him home if he wasn’t happy. That sort of negative attitude spreads fast.”
Another common hiring mistake Strassman sees is getting too excited about a single employee. “You can’t put all your eggs in one basket like that,” she said. “You can find someone great, train them for awhile and then watch them leave. I don’t want to spend my good guys’ time training someone who’s on their way out the door.”
When it comes to hiring the right people, Strassman said to trust your gut. “If something smells bad today, realize that it probably won’t smell like roses the next morning.”
Take it national
Staebell recommends working with elected officials to educate them on the importance of developing the construction workforce. “Jobs and economic enhancement are critical issues for our elected leaders to hear about,” he said, “and it is wonderful that companies support and provide this leadership.”
For example, the Mathy Construction Company has dedicated resources and time to working with and informing our elected officials on industry-related issues and to educate them on the importance of the industry.
Developing a workforce for the future of our industry benefits our country’s infrastructure. Whatever you can do—big or small—to help, do it.