Despite the challenging times we’re all living in, the construction and trades industries continue to boom, and the labor shortage so prevalent in recent years has only intensified during 2020. Moreover, a growing percentage of the workforce is reaching the age they’d usually leave the industry, but they remain because there are so few people entering the industry. Plus, the members of the younger generation here in the U.S. are not seeing the long-term (and monetary) benefits of construction careers, so recruiting focuses on foreign labor. Now, across the industry, there is typically an age gap on job-sites between workers in their 40s to 60s and those in their 20s. Amid the present opportunities, there are definitive difficulties.

Arising from the current scenario are two distinct issues that both have a significant impact on the safety, efficiency, and success of construction jobs: (1) bridging the generation gap on the job-site when it comes to safety and mentoring, and (2) recruiting and retaining workers. Here, risk management expert, John O’Grady provides his insights into those matters. Plus, Builders Mutual customers Pinkie Wood, Corporate Safety Director at TST Roofing, and Craig and Kimberly Warren, owners of Craiberly, Inc., a ductwork fabricator and installer, offer wise advice based on their own successful approaches.

Passing along wisdom

Not long ago, fathers and grandfathers passed along practical knowledge of hammers, nails, and saws. It was a rite of passage. But even if family wasn’t a source of wood-and-iron wisdom, the local high school offered shop classes to teach those fundamental proficiencies. Now, however, even the basic building skills have escaped a generation (or two). So, when younger people do come knocking on the door of the industry, they aren’t arriving well equipped.

It’s a great idea for companies to establish mentor programs that pair more experienced team members with those needing to build their skills. Programs like these can be highly effective when the new employee is focused and eager to learn. If a new worker shows good potential, another option is to sponsor him or her to go into a trade school or an apprentice program. When the business owner invests in that individual, their support goes a long way toward engaging that employee for the long run.

For larger organizations with a greater capacity for upward mobility, a clear pipeline for advancement can be established, giving each employee a vision for their potential future. When possible, this type of program can also align with mentorship for a double dose of guidance and training. Not only is this a great recruitment and retention tool, but it helps optimize safety and skill development in these individuals.

Training for a growth mentality

“Our company is really different, and it’s making a huge impact on both safety and the retention of younger workers,” Pinkie Wood explains. “We train them, invest in them, and show them we really care about their safety—and care about them personally. Our older roofers work one on one with the younger ones, helping to train and mentor them.” Wood adds that TST Roofing works very hard at getting buy-in for safety. “For us, it’s not just about the company not getting OSHA fines. It’s about them having the opportunity to go home safely every day to their families,” Wood says.

For the 36 employees of Craiberly, most of the training and mentoring comes primarily from the owners. But, according to Kimberly Warren, “We expect the guys who have been with us longer to be responsible for the newbies to ensure safety and contain costs.” Of course, the company turns to Builders Mutual Risk Management for the latest safety education and materials.

To address the younger generation of workers, the company has also revisited how training is delivered. “A few years ago, we’d provided the typical weekly toolbox talk,” Craig Warren says. “Now, we do these trainings through YouTube, so everyone gets it individually and can watch it on their cell phone. Then, they’re given questions to answer to be sure they’ve watched.”

Retaining the new and sustaining the old(er)

Once you get the new, younger employees in the door and utilize your more experienced workers to help them stay safe, how do you keep them? For TST Roofing, reducing turnover is about getting cultural buy-in. “We’ve adapted from the old-school job-site thinking to embrace an approach of listening to the ideas of these new guys,” explains Wood. “Coming in fresh, they bring a new perspective to the table.”

Another aspect that sets the company apart is the fact that the senior management team has an open-door policy. “If any employee wants to talk with the company president—or any manager—he or she can walk right in,” Wood says. “This is extremely refreshing to the workforce. When we show we care and that they’re listened to, we get harder-working and mentally healthy employees.”

According to the owners of Craiberly, the key to retention is mutual investment. “We take good care of new employees from their first day, because once they’re onboard for six months to a year, it’s easier to keep them,” Craig Warren says.

When new hires are interested in growth, Craiberly demonstrates commitment through financial rewards. “We start higher than minimum wage and immediately reward those who jump in to do well, learn, etc. When we help them move forward financially as soon as possible, we ensure we’re also getting what we need,” Warren says.

Not every company can offer new employees a definitive path of advancement. But it’s important to communicate the typical progression of that particular trade or position. If the timeframe is three to four years, make that known, and then provide training or share resources so the more ambitious individuals can be successful.

For workers who are “aging out” of hard labor jobs, there are creative ways to keep them on the job-site to retain the immense value they bring. Sharing the perspective of their company, Wood says, “We invest in the older guys by reimagining their roles, which typically involves reducing the physical aspects and putting them in foreman and supervisor positions where they can guide and mentor the younger workers.” This type of action helps the older workers to feel valued, because they are being shepherded through a difficult transition—and their knowledge is not lost.

Earning loyalty

No matter the size of a company, owners and managers can create loyalty by being sincere, creating bonds with employees, paying well, and establishing a relationship culture. When workers know the owner has their back if they have a safety concern, for example, they’ll feel comfortable bringing up the concern knowing they won’t get into trouble. And, when you provide employees with good equipment, safety tools, and training, employees will feel taken care of and secure.

Kimberly Warren adds that some swag never hurts, either. “We give all our employees coats, sweatshirts, and shirts. It actually makes a huge difference. This small gesture shows them that we’re giving what they need to do their job and that we care.” Kimberly and Craig also spend a lot of time making sure people feel like they’re part of the team by holding monthly meetings, making medical and dental insurance available, and having the team vote for an employee of the month.

The combination of construction growth with the labor shortage and aging workforce has created an interesting scenario throughout the industry, requiring companies to be intentional about recruiting, retention, and safety. But, done right, these challenges can be transformed into opportunity and met with great success.