Step 4: Be Future Focused 

Future-focused companies position themselves for future success by preparing for who and what may come next. Failure to learn about and strive to understand the younger generations quickly makes a company irrelevant.  

Millennials came of age during the Great Recession, and the generation to follow – Generation Z – saw firsthand their parents and siblings struggle financially as a result of the Great Recession. Born out of this tumultuous time were five mini-economies. Understanding these mini-economies provides a window into the opinions, values, and behaviors of the younger generations.  

5 mini-economies that have strongly shaped the younger generations 

  • Experience Economy – Organizations are realizing they must create a place where people want to work – a place of positive experience. 
  • Gig Economy – Younger generations are taking a multi-career or ‘side hustle’ approach to work. With being the most debt-ridden generation in history, Millennials in particular need to be creative to make ends meet. 
  • Knowledge Economy – People are an organization’s greatest asset, with innovation and ideas being key drivers – younger generations want their insights to be respected and valued. 
  • Sharing Economy – The younger generations are open to the idea of sharing more and owning less. What is most important to them is access. This is illustrated by the boom of vacation rentals by owners (VRBOs), zip cars, and the rise in equipment rentals. 
  • Impact Economy – The younger generations are seeking purpose and meaning in their lives, both personally and professionally. Being able to make a positive impact on the world is a strong driving force in employment selection.  

 Putting into place employee engagement practices that support these mini-economies can demonstrate a company is future-focused. Masonry companies should: 

  • Explore technological advances, such as Fastbrick, the Semi-Automated Mason, and block technology. The younger generations have not known life without technology, so companies exploring and embracing technological advances are more appealing to these populations. 
  • Help employees diversify their skills. Cross-training provides variety, prepares for industry downturns, and directs ‘side hustle’ interests. 
  • Invite employees to share their ideas and perspectives. 
  • Promote work-life balance through flexible scheduling (such as a 4-day work week), extra vacation time as a safety incentive, insurance coverage, or 401K matching. 
  • Sponsor professional development opportunities and support career pathing. 
  • Recognize employee value both monetarily and personally.  

Engaging Employees 

Research from the Hay Group:  

Happy employees are on average 31% more productive.  

Highly engaged employees are 50% more likely to exceed expectations. 

Companies that engage employees can reduce voluntary turnover by 54%.  

Growth Through Diversification 

The needs of the masonry industry are constantly changing. In order to successfully grow into the future and remain relevant, companies need to be able to swing and flow with customer needs. As Baum shared, the number one thing employers and employees can do to stay relevant and competitive is “be diversified. Be willing to learn it all. From restoration to new masonry, from serpentine walls to thin stone, or chimneys, demolition, and everything in between.”  

He emphasized that masons and their employers need to be on the ready when market-shares change. Having a 360-degree understanding of the industry keeps masons from being too standardized and allows them to survive in the lean times. “Diversification and training is where the future is at,” stressed Baum. 

Reed also stated that each region of the country carries with it different needs, making regional diversification also important. As an example, weather is a major challenge for certain parts of the country. Northern states struggle with employee retention during the lean winter months, so cross-training employees can help keep them busy, ultimately retaining them as employees.   

As another example, the St. Louis area does a ton of fire brick while Florida sees a lot of stucco on block. Through skill diversification, companies can better retain their employees by providing a broader scope of work opportunities based on various external factors. The more work stability an employer can provide, the more engaged an employee will be. Companies need to proactively cross-train employees on the skills most relevant for their region.  

Reed also cautioned companies from falling into the trap of pushing training aside in busy times. As he stated, “the slow times will come around again,” and a well-trained workforce is “excellent ammunition to get a variety of different jobs and bids. Training tends to take the backseat the fastest, but then in times of need, a trained workforce is missing.” 

Painter added to this discussion when he stated that associations can also play a role here. Associations are uniquely positioned to connect companies with one another. Industry success is much more likely when companies collaborate and ride the waves of change together. By cross-training employees collectively, and by sharing resources rather than stealing resources from one another, the industry as a whole will benefit.  

“More competition means more trained individuals, which is a win-win for all. The labor shortage is real. Working together, rather than against each other, is the only way to bring back a skilled workforce,” stated Painter.    

Growth Through Technology 

While technology will never replace the mason, there are opportunities for companies to leverage technology to help address the labor shortage. Whether it is technology to help carry the weight of a block or pre-casting mechanisms allowing for a more competitive bid, technology should be viewed as a part of the workforce solution.  

As Reed stated, technology is often “the tail wagging the dog. A lot of new ideas and technology are coming about as a way to address the shrinking workforce.” Companies that are not exploring technological opportunities or who do not have a voice at the table will find themselves lost in the shuffle and passed over in the future.  

An Untapped Labor Market 

A common statement shared in every interview and focus group was, ‘if we can get people in the door, we can train them.’ As Florida is finding out, there are untapped labor markets out there, the industry simply needs to think creatively to engage these different labor markets.  

The Florida Concrete Mason Education Council has put into effect a new initiative focused on its state correctional facilities. With 50 prisons in the state of Florida and nearly 100,000 inmates, the Council sees this as an untapped market to help address the state’s labor shortage. The Council currently has seven programs in seven different prisons and is following a specific process to identify and train the most promising candidates.  

Painter explained that the first step in the process is simply asking inmates, “do you want a job in construction when you get out of prison?” From those who say yes, the Council identifies the individuals who have previous construction experience, then provides a written exam and a hands-on test to funnel down to the most promising prospects. Those who show the most promise are teamed up with Florida’s Workforce Readiness Group. This group then helps with things such as getting inmates ready with OSHA 10 cards. 

The Council is also working with contractors to increase the program’s success rate. Painter stated, “if we can give as much information to a contractor on who they will be hiring and what the candidate can do, we will be helping both the inmate and the contractor be successful.” In addition, the Council offers an incentive for contractors to hire these individuals. For the first 4-6 weeks of employment, a contractor can submit an employee’s timesheet for reimbursement up to $2,000. 

As Painter sees it, if the Florida masonry industry can get 5 to 10 inmates from each of the 50 state correctional institutions, then the program will be a huge success. “That is the low hanging fruit,” said Painter. 

The Council is also extending its efforts beyond the prisons directly. Through Painter’s involvement with the local workforce board, he discovered there are 25,000 former inmates who complete monthly check-ins with their parole officers. In an effort to play offense, a desk has been set up in the workforce one-stop center for parolee check-in use. When parolees say they have not yet secured a job, the parole officer can literally walk individuals over to workforce representatives, who can assist in training and job placement in a variety of fields, including the masonry industry.  

Thinking about and approaching recruitment differently will help build the industry into the future. 

Step #5: Collaborate 

Associations present an excellent opportunity for collaboration, and the MCAA is doing its part to connect industry professionals. As one focus group member shared, “belonging to national and state associations is very important because of the collective voice associations can carry.” Another mason shared that he has experienced firsthand the negative political repercussions that can result from individual companies speaking up. But when companies come together through an association, their voice within the government is stronger and can carry more weight.  

Yet another mason expanded on this observation. Talking about undocumented workers, jobsite raids, and the labor shortage, he stated, “up to this point, the construction industry has taken a bit of a head-in-the-sand approach because of fear of the government, but we are now at a point where, if we do not get reasonable political solutions, we are going to have a commercially devastating situation on our hands. We need to work together through associations. It is the correct avenue because the association can afford to speak for the whole without individual companies being punished.” 

Historically, raw material in the southern and southwestern regions of the United States has been defined by an immigrant workforce. But with changes in the political landscape, there is a shadow society out there, many of whom are skilled laborers without a place to work.  

Working together, through associations, the industry has an opportunity to involve the federal government and its sponsorship programs to train this shadow society. “If we can legally bring workers out of the shadows and guide them through the naturalization process, we will be doing everyone a service,” shared one respondent.  

Through collaboration, associations can hear from their members and speak on their behalves, placing the good of the industry front and center.  

Step #6: Building the Future 

When looking to build the future, industry and education must align. When it comes to the masonry industry, the opportunities for business and education partnerships are endless.  

As we know, Generation Z is a driven, motivated, pragmatic, and entrepreneurial generation seeking financial security and stability. Each of these characteristics positions this generation as an excellent audience for the masonry industry to tell its story to. And it is an excellent story to tell.  

As Huntley so perfectly stated, “we are a proud group of craftsmen, but we have not shared our story, and that is hurting us.” Belcher agreed with this assertion and is humbled and honored by the story of pride this profession offers. “I can step back at the end of the day and show that I created and built this,” shared Belcher. The beauty and creativity of the work, the pride and satisfaction felt at the end of the day, the practicality of the task, and the opportunity to earn a great living are all key components of the masonry story that will resonate with Gen Z. 

The North Carolina Masonry Contractors Association (NCMCA) has taken a bold step to share the masonry story by hiring Ryan Shaver as its first Workforce Development and Training Coordinator. Shaver serves as the ombudsman for masonry training, particularly in public education. He maintains regular contact with masonry classes and instructors, coordinates masonry contractor and professional involvement in the local high schools, and recruits and mentors’ instructors for different masonry programs. 

Under Shaver’s coordination, this year the NCMCA piloted a new high school program in Charlotte, offering eight 48-minute sessions that introduced students to the industry and provided hands-on learning experiences. Huntley, president of NCMCA, hired five employees for summer employment from the pilot program, and all five have committed to coming on full-time after graduation. A true testament to the success of the program.  

The hope is that next year there will be 50 to 60 student employees in the Charlotte and Raleigh areas as a result of this initiative. From Huntley’s perspective, this opens the door to additional opportunities. “For each kid I bring on, he knows 5 to 6 others that I could potentially hire. Masonry is definitely a profession of word of mouth, so we need to get the word out,” said Huntley.  

“Colleges do a great job of talking to students at a young age,” making the college path seem the most logical and appealing, shared Huntley. “It is time we as an industry follow the college lead, go into the high schools and middle schools, and talk about our profession,” Huntley added. The Mount Pleasant CTE director played a big role in helping Huntley recognize this variable when the director shared a story about a local plumber who asked, “Why don’t you ever send me any plumbing students?” The director responded, “Why aren’t you in here talking to me and my students?” The masonry industry needs to own the role of opening the door to dialogue and educating youth about the industry. 

In addition to participation in the NCMCA pilot program, Huntley’s company also goes into local schools on their own multiple times each year. A visit to a drafting class resulted in five other summer hires for Huntley Brothers Company, Inc. As Huntley stated, “There is no mason tree out there. It’s up to me to get out, find that guy, and train him the way I want.”  

 In fact, Huntley said a hard-working 18-year-old is his ideal candidate, even over a 20-year veteran, because they are eager to learn. He also pointed out that, while the profession is often male dominated, it is equally important to share the masonry story with both boys and girls. Huntley shared an example of a female high school student in the Charlotte area that recently took eighth in the state skills competition and has started her own business. Masonry “is a great career opportunity that we need to share with more youth overall,” exclaimed Huntley.  

Generation Z Development 

Huntley Brothers Company, Inc., takes the development of the next generation workforce very seriously. NCMCA’s partnership with the state of North Carolina has made it possible for high school students to earn high school credit for documented on-the-job training through registered apprenticeship program partners. Huntley Brothers is one of those registered partners and has found it tremendously beneficial. “We can work kids as young as 16 years old. This past summer we had eleven employees in that age range, and they are excellent workers,” stated Huntley.  

Once employees are in the door, Huntley Brothers recognizes the importance of employee development and putting people first. As a result, the company has experienced rapid, successful growth in the seven years it has been in existence. This is illustrated by their high retention rates and average employee age being under 30. 

Tapping into Gen Z’s need for financial security, Huntley Brothers clearly outlines a realistic and achievable four-year path for its young employees. As a 16-year old starting out at the bottom mixing mortar, income potential is $29,000 the first year. Within a year they want their young employees laying brick, with an income potential of $36,000 to $38,000. The third-year employee is more seasoned and can earn $42,000 to $45,000.  

By the fourth year, employees have the opportunity to manage a group of seven to eight guys, and the pay scale increases to $72,000 to $110,000 annually based on employee production.  

Huntley Brother Company’s Young Employee Career Path 

Year 1: Mix mortar = $29,000 income potential 

Year 2: Lay brick = $36,000 to $38,000 income potential 

Year 3: Seasoned employee = $42,000 to $45,000 income potential 

Year 4: Manage team = $72,000 to $110,000 income potential  

Young employees are responding very positively to this approach.  

“We had a young 16-year old come to work with us through the apprenticeship program. I remember watching him on his first payday as he opened his paycheck. He sat down on his truck and stared at the $480 figure for the longest time. You could see the emotion in his eyes. He couldn’t believe he had earned that much money,” stated Huntley. He then added that the pride in what the young employee had earned at such a young age made him as the employer also emotional.  

NCCER also believes in educating our youth to be job ready after high school and college-debt free. The NCCER curricula is designed to help individuals go through all three levels of an apprenticeship program that can be used anywhere, such as in high schools and technical colleges. They also know the value of supporting and guiding youth through the process, so they have integrated mentorship strategies into their programs. NCCER wants the industry to become more involved, earlier on, to build the talent pipeline of tomorrow.  

Build Awareness 

“As an industry, we need to work together to get into the schools as early as we can to teach kids, and their parents, that while college is a great option for some, there are other options too. You don’t need to have a college degree to make good money,” expressed Painter. In fact, based on Painter’s own personal experience, “If you work hard and perform, you can own the company. It is always possible to start from the bottom and work to the top. Take me for example, I started at the bottom, worked my way up, have had a great career.” 

Building in more opportunities in secondary schools across the United States is needed. Painter believes more companies need to get involved with SkillsUSA to help spark the interest of our youth. SkillsUSA exists to partner students, teachers, and industry to “ensure America has a skilled workforce.” Their purpose is to help students excel, so industry involvement with SkillsUSA is a logical partnership. And the popularity of SkillsUSA is growing, particularly the Skills competitions – after all, Gen Z was raised on competition. These are the opportunities the masonry industry needs to tap into to build awareness and prepare tomorrow’s skilled workforce. 

The NCCER sees parent education as another critical piece in talent pipeline development. While the program has received support from educators and school administrators, awareness of and support for the trades among parents is lacking. To combat this, NCCER is opening up a parent portal to hurdle over this obstacle. The parent portal’s intent is to educate parents on the opportunities within the trades, the benefits of entering a trades profession, and the value the trades bring to individuals, families, and society as a whole.   

A Call to Action 

With the masonry industry facing many changes and challenges ahead, now is the time to take action and prepare for the future. Now is the time for the industry to think differently about employee recruitment, engagement, and retention. And now is the time for the industry to tell its story.  

Here are a few ways to get started: 

  • Review the tips listed within this report and choose an idea or action to take within the next month to support or improve your company’s workforce development efforts.
     
  • Register for Talent Generation: Tools to manage the 21st Century, multi-generational job site, XYZ University’s special workforce training and planning course taking place at the World of Concrete in January. During this session attendees will build a workforce response plan customized to addressing their own company’s needs. Register at masoncontractors.org/convention/
     
  • Share your story with MCAA. Like MCAA on social media to share your story with them to continue to follow all the steps being taken to engage the next generation of the masonry workforce. 
  • Facebook: /MasonContractors 
  • Twitter: @mcaa 
  • YouTube: Mason Contractors Association of America 
  • LinkedIn:  Mason Contractors 
  • Instagram: @mcaa 
  • MCAA Student Membership – Ideal for beginning and advancing a masonry career; 
  • NCCER Partnership – Promoting the profession to secondary and post-secondary education institutions; 
  • Training Program Database – The industry’s only comprehensive training program resource; 
  • Masonry Career Center – Managing the masonry industry’s electronic recruitment resource; 
  • Masonry Skills Challenge – Spotlighting the industry’s young masons and career opportunities; 
  • Fastest Trowel on the Block Competition – Highlighting industry craftsmanship through speed and skill; 
  • Masonry Foreman Development Course – Providing the skills necessary to become an effective job foreman and a company profit center; 
  • SkillsUSA – Connecting its members to SkillsUSA’s 250,000+ high school and college student members.  

“The future is, and has always been, our only succession plan. Our collective futures will be determined by the actions that we – as leaders – take today. You can choose to see this call to action as a challenge or an opportunity. In either case, it’s your organization’s legacy, so choose wisely.”  

Sarah Sladek 

CEO, XYZ University 

Author, Talent Generation 

 

Interviews 

 

Brad Reed, L.F. Jennings, Inc. 

Brett Sherman, Alliance Masonry Corporation 

Dan Belcher, National Center for Construction Education & Research  

Jim Painter, Florida Concrete Masonry Education Council 

Kent Huntley, Huntley Brothers Company, Inc. 

Kevin Camarata, Camarata Masonry Systems, Ltd. 

Kurt Baum, Otto Baum Company, Inc. 

Paul M. Cantarella, Cantarella & Sons, Inc. 

Sarah Sladek, XYZ University 

Words: Sarah Sladek and Heather Thomton-Stockman
Photos: XYZ University, bowdenimages, cineberg, sneksy