By now, virtually every mason contractor knows about the challenges of attracting and retaining qualified workers. So what are they going to do about it?

Yes, they can – and should — support the industry’s initiatives to spur more vocational education and apprenticeship programs supported by local schools and colleges, as well as government at all levels. But contractors themselves might also have to adjust how they’ve gone about the hiring process.

Bottom line: contractors have to be truly committed to the hard work of recruitment and talent development, experts say. It not only has to start from the top, but contractors also have to hold specific people accountable for these functions. Moreover, firms have to materially invest in talent, not only with competitive compensation packages, but also with adequate training and career development programs, and in particularly tight labor markets, signing bonuses to get workers in the door – even for hourly positions.

But that’s still not enough, experts say. The younger generations, especially millennials, want an employer that respects them, that treats them like professionals, no matter their position. They want a boss who doesn’t just bark orders, but encourages collaboration when appropriate – someone who truly values the worker’s contributions.

“You can call it a generational thing — people want to be more involved with decision making and their environment, and they want respect,” says Tery Tennant, a partner at Attainment Inc. in Scottsdale, AZ. “While boomers may have tolerated autocratic leadership more, younger generations don’t so much. In order to be effectively engaged, people want more say and involvement in the things that affect them.”

For many in the older generations, that kind of culture may seem more fitting for a tech startup or a trendy magazine, but not in construction. But younger workers in all industries and all positions, even entry-level ones, are increasingly desiring to make their mark using creativity and collaboration. The mason contractors who truly get this will be able to find the right workers – and then keep them. A survey last year by the Associated General Contractors of America bears this out. Two-thirds of the 1,459 construction executives surveyed by the AGC say they are having a hard time filling hourly craft positions. To overcome the industry’s challenge, 20 percent of the respondents say they have improved employee benefits for craft workers, and the same percentage say they are providing incentives and bonuses to attract workers. In addition, 37 percent say they are getting involved with career-building programs in local schools, and nearly half (48 percent) are doing more in-house training.

It all starts with instilling the proper company culture, Tennant says.

“The best advertisement for good people is to have a company culture that existing employees want to brag to others about,” he says. “This attractiveness will draw good people. This kind of advertisement is priceless — yet also free.”

Monetary and other compensation, as long as it is competitive in the marketplace, is not the most important factor for workers, Tennant says. Having the right culture and leadership that is fair, honest and communicates well is the biggest factor in retention.

“Trying to address anything but the leadership or culture is really just a temporary band-aid, which will not produce lasting results,” he says.

According to many studies on the topic, people leave a company primarily because of how they were treated by its leaders, Tennant says, citing the book, “The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave,” in which the author Leigh Branham features a landmark study of more than 20,000 employee exit interviews.

While a high percentage of people initially said in their exit interviews that they left for more compensation, when the researchers dug deeper they found that in the overwhelming majority of cases, money was not actually the primary cause, he says. They learned that people often choose to blame it on money, rather than to say it was leadership practices, for fear they would cause ill feelings and burn bridges. Mason contractors should heed that study and adjust their leadership style and culture, if necessary, Tennant says.

“Word-of-mouth travels fast, and workers know the good contractors to work for,” he says. “They also know that making a little more at one place, is not nearly as appealing if it means they are not treated well. In this way, smaller contractors who can’t afford to pay quite as much as the biggest ones, can still be more than competitive in the ‘intangibles.’”

Contractors serious about attracting qualified workers need to commit to a formal recruitment and talent development program, and designate someone to be in charge of that, says George Hedley, CSP, a licensed professional business coach at Hardhat BIZCOACH based in Newport Beach, CA. But Hedley, who consults with many mason contractors, says that often contractors have not devoted enough resources to those efforts.

“No plan, nothing happens,” he says. “Part of that is no one in the company is accountable to find and hire people — it’s an afterthought.” Recruitment must be a top priority for the company owner, but the chief executive can delegate the tasks to a hiring coordinator, Hedley says. The position ideally shouldn’t be held by the same person who is in charge of other human resource functions such as payroll and benefits, but someone who can dedicate their time to all the professional recruiting efforts necessary to attract people to consider the firm.

Such efforts should not only include placing ads in multi-language local media outlets and online job sites, but also recruiting at local schools and colleges, networking within the industry and attending shows, he says. The person would also have to oversee the development of a hiring webpage with videos in multiple languages showing the attributes of the company as an employer, as well as find ways to make the application process easy and convenient, such as setting up a standard voicemail directing callers to a dedicated extension. That extension should thank the callers, offer information on the jobs that are open and give instructions on how to apply.

Throughout this process, contractors should not be afraid to invest the necessary dollars, Hedley says. “You can’t go cheap when hiring – you have to be willing to invest in quality ads that attract, and the ads have to be enticing,” he says. “The problem is, as mason contractors you’re competing with other jobs at factories, warehouses, the post office and corporations. You’re competing with every industry in your neighborhood.”

In particularly tight labor markets, contractors need to be open to using headhunters and offering signing bonuses, even to hourly workers, Hedley says. For example, companies can offer a $500 bonus after new hires stay on the job for 90 days, and they can also offer $100 referral bonuses to employees if the referred person interviews for a job – and $1,000 if the candidate is hired.

Companies also need to be willing to invest in talent for the long haul.

“In order to attract people you have to pay top dollar and benefits,” he says. “You’re competing with the warehouses and the corporations that are in your market. They all pay 24/7, 52 weeks a year, with full benefits, profit sharing, stock options, health insurance, the whole deal.”

To hire professionals for senior positions, contractors need to offer top benefits, vacation, gas allowance and cell phone allowance, among other perks, Hedley says. For hourly workers, contractors have to offer paid vacation and holidays, guaranteed so many days a year.

“People don’t want to work for someone who’s cheap,” he says. “If the market’s 23 bucks, pay 25 plus vacation or holiday. You get what you pay for.” After the hiring coordinator attracts job candidates, that person then needs to set up interviews with the appropriate people within the firm who can best determine if the candidates are qualified, whether it’s the owner, the general superintendent, the project manager, the foreman, or someone in the back office for administrative functions. For some positions, years of experience might not matter as much as aptitude.

Once hired, how do contractors retain quality workers? By continuing to invest in the development of their talent, no matter the position, Hedley says.

“People today want a future, want to feel respected, appreciated, that they’re on a team — if the boss cares about them, that’s way more important than pay,” he says. “Contractors have got to have a program that recognizes, appreciates, motivates and trains people so they can move up. People need to know they have a future there – ‘what’s in it for me?’”

The first priority of a training and development program is to provide a clear understanding of what’s expected, not only about the specific targets for that employee’s particular position, but also for the company’s overall goals, as well as the general culture of the organization, Hedley says.

Another top priority is making sure that workers are praised for doing their jobs well, and for contributing to the company’s overall mission. Contractors should implement a recognition program for achievers, and keep workers informed about what the company is trying to accomplish and how employees fit into those goals.

Talent development is crucial, with a formal training ladder for each employee and regular meetings with their superior about their progress – “people have to know what their future looks like in the company,” he says.

“The boss also has to show they care about their people,” Hedley says. “My mantra is build a great place to work that attracts and retains the best people in the market, versus hiring the cheapest person, get them to do the most they can do as fast as they can do it, pay them as little as possible — and then hope it works out.”

Words: Masonry Magazine
Photos: Masonry Magazine