Contractors embrace non-traditional means to build talent
Filled with tidy arrays of tools, materials and mock-ups, DEL Electric’s prefabrication shop is primed for efficiency. At its brightly lit worktables and adjacent warehouse, prefab workers can complete tasks typically more than twice as fast as site workers. The operation nearly eliminates waste, speeds installations and reduces congestion at construction sites.
Yet DEL’s prefab shop also delivers an entirely different — and possibly larger — benefit. It has become one of the company’s most potent tools for recruiting and developing talent.
“I know from personal experience how hard it is to start out in the construction trades,” said Doug Townsley, President and CEO of DEL Electric. “When you hire someone who is brand new to construction, a greenie, they don’t know much of anything about the trade. The foremen don’t want or have the time to deal with them, so they get told to push a broom or pick up trash. Guys in the field will pull jokes on them (based on their lack of trade knowledge). It’s almost like college hazing. The first few months working in construction, I almost quit several times due to these same circumstances.”
To avoid that harsh entry into the industry, DEL tailored its prefab operations to also serve as a training ground for its new employees. Over the course of a two-month program, entry-level workers learn the fundamentals of electrical work, develop good work habits and gain hands-on experience with many of the tools, materials and processes that electrical crews handle daily. The experience has turned most trainees into more productive site workers, successful apprentices and permanent employees of DEL.
The industry-wide worker shortage is compelling many construction companies to implement bigger and sometimes unconventional initiatives to attract, retain and develop talent. Innovative training programs that focus on non-traditional hires are proving to be effective.
“If you said the phrase ‘talent management and retention’ 15 years ago, you would get a lot of blank stares from people at construction companies,” said Erik Klebahn, Director of Talent Acquisition at Harkins Builders. “But I think this topic is much more top of mind and we are making tremendous strides.”
Like DEL Electric, Harkins recently embarked on an unconventional training initiative to attract and develop employees. It established the Winter Internship — an on-the-job training program for would-be superintendents. Recruitment for the program targeted individuals without construction experience — often untraditional hires (such as former teachers, law enforcement officers or veterans) or individuals from underserved communities. The program includes several weeks of instruction on a range of topics such as the roles of different trades and how to read construction documents. Participants also receive hands-on experience. They are placed on construction sites and assigned some of the duties and responsibilities of an assistant superintendent.
“The cool thing is Harkins is set up to provide coaching and training. Developing others is part of our DNA,” Klebahn said. “Our site teams are phenomenal at giving people the guidance they need to be successful.”
Following the first Winter Internship program, Harkins offered assistant superintendent positions to about 80 percent of the cohort.
“What we have found is if we focus on the right attributes in candidates — drive, resiliency, adaptability, humility, integrity, teamwork and an eagerness to learn — we can hire based on character and train for competence,” Klebahn said. “They will have to start at the bottom and work their way up, but it gets the right talent in the door rather than waiting for the right resume – one that already has the right degree and years of experience.”
Hiring people with no construction experience “is an avenue we have to look at,” he added. “Other industries have been doing this for years. The finance and tech industries have been taking folks with all sorts of diverse backgrounds that don’t necessarily correlate with what they do in their new jobs. The construction industry has been a little late to the game in this approach to acquiring talent.”
For the last four years, DEL Electric’s prefab program has proven those unconventional hires can become successful construction professionals.
“We look for people who have some sort of proven talent,” Townsley said. “They may have gone through college and earned a non-related degree, but it shows they took the time and effort to pass those exams and earn their degree. Maybe they were in the military which is fantastic because they know understand responsibility and discipline.”
A person who may have not completed college, a high school graduate or even a transitioning worker can also prove they have talent while working in the prefab shop by demonstrating good work ethics and habits as well as an ability and eagerness to learn.
The program provides those unconventional hires with the fundamentals to do electrical work and ongoing support to build their careers.
Prefabrication Manager Larry Dahler delights in delivering expansive education – everything from explaining atoms, electrons, magnetic fields, generators, motors, the trigonometry behind electrical design, and the operations of the electric grid to the months of hands-on training, assembling boxes and brackets, cutting and threading rigid conduit, stripping old wire and insulation, and constructing training boards that include varied connectors, wiring methods, light switches and receptacles.
“When we send them out into the field, they are knowledgeable. They are acclimated to construction, understand the early working hours, and I tell them that when they go out into the field to sell themselves to the foreman,” Dahler said. “Tell them what you know how to do. If you are assigned to something unfamiliar, tell the foreman up front that you are not certain what he wants you to do. Don’t be bashful… They develop a level of confidence that they bring out onto the jobsite. There’s also very little loss of productivity onsite because they can instantly be productive. They also fall in line with the other guys much easier, much quicker which improves morale.”
The prefab program, which also serves as a screening process, has enabled DEL to identify desirable, permanent staff. DEL then offers to pay for their apprenticeship programs. To date, nearly one-quarter of DEL’s staff have gone through the prefab training program.
“Our prefab shop is a great program,” Townsley said. “I could see every type of trade benefiting with having this type of setup in assisting with talent development and job site efficiencies.”