Help wanted: Industry response to the labor shortage

By |  September 2, 2015
Photo: wawritto

Photo: wawritto

Demand for aggregate workers is on the rise as retirements pile up.

A job ad on Craigslist or Monster generally won’t attract the candidates aggregate producers seek to fill highly technical positions within their quarries. Not by a long shot. Equipment operators aren’t lining up off the street to take up quarry work, and people who can effectively maintain equipment are equally difficult to find.

Hiring wasn’t always the hurdle it currently is, but it’s become a bigger issue than ever for a number of aggregate producers. Building and maintaining a workforce may become an even greater challenge in the years to come, too.

Based on 2012 data, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects the mining industry to grow by about 50,000 workers by 2019. In addition, EIA projects the mining industry will need 78,000 replacement workers by 2019 because of active workers who will be retiring.

That’s 128,000 new positions the mining industry will need to fill. Not all of those are aggregates-specific jobs, but the data suggests filling positions in the coming years may continue to be a struggle.

Factors other than demand for new workers and retirements may compound the struggle. For example, the number of mining and mineral engineering programs at U.S. colleges and universities has declined dramatically over the last 30 years, according to the Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration (SME). Faculty in these programs has also declined, SME reports, and federal funding of studies and research in mining has been drastically reduced.

The declines at colleges and universities mean fewer candidates are being driven to mining. The perception of trade schools has changed over the years, too, and that impacts the industry. Parents want their kids to attend college, earn four-year degrees and build comfortable careers with office jobs. Blue-collar work isn’t coveted like it once was.

“No one wants to get dirty,” says Jeff Carlisle, national sales manager at Douglas Manufacturing. “No one wants to put in the work that it takes to do these jobs.”

Yes, quarry jobs are dirty ones. But the aggregates industry has a lot to offer, says Phil James, executive director at the Institute of Quarrying. The industry simply needs to do a better job promoting its benefits.

“We need to move from an industry that is so desperate for people that it will take on anyone to one that has high standards and expectations, such that achieving those standards offers personal reward and fulfillment to our working population,” James says. “As a ‘physical’ industry, we have a great opportunity to open our doors and show off our sites, equipment and products, as well as the many and varied professions and vocations that we offer.”

Building a profile

So how should aggregate producers position themselves to attract their next generation of employees? James says producers should familiarize themselves with Generation Z, the group of people born as early as the mid-1990s to the present day.
This group thrives on regular communication, James says. They enjoy collaborating in teams, so a producer-hosted mentoring program might encourage young people to stay with an aggregate producer after joining the company.

Young people also enjoy using technology. The mining industry is using more technology today, James adds, and it should increase its use of it to align with the interests of Generation Z.

Company culture is also a factor for young people as they pursue jobs, James says. Aggregate producers should consider the culture they’ve created as they look to attract future employees.

“Young people want jobs with perks and a come-and-go-as-you-like atmosphere, which is common among high-tech firms,” James says. “To be appealing, the extractives industry needs to create a good fit culture.”

This isn’t an easy environment to create for an industry that relies on continuous production. Still, James says this is a consideration producers should make if they plan to compete with high-tech firms or industries that can provide Generation Z the flexibility it seeks.

“We need to provide various multidisciplinary pathways for their careers,” James says. “Due to their fickle nature, young people no longer consider a job for life and want to be able to try new things and to move their skills and expertise from one discipline to another. This will be challenging for rigid corporate structures and HR practices to accommodate, but it is us who will have to change if we are to start to win the war on attracting young people into our profession.”

Not every young person is a match for a quarry job, James admits. Specific groups should be targeted.

“The extractives industry needs to target the right group of young people for field/site positions – those out of high school but not in college,” he says. “An older group attending two-year community college programs is an up-and-coming recruitment target. They have tried a career path or two and are ready to settle down.”

Carlisle says veterans are an ideal fit for quarry jobs. He suggests targeting them for open positions.

“They already work heavy equipment,” he says. “They’re always out in the elements. You put your head down and do your job. This is a worker who will show up.”

Veterans already have safety mindsets, too. Those can translate nicely onto an aggregates site.

“I think military guys are looking to do anything right now,” Carlisle says. “Some are going to college. Some are going into business. Some don’t know what they want to do.”

So reach out to veterans and share the value of a career in the aggregates industry with them.

Effective approaches

Chris Upp, vice president and general manager at Conco Quarries, sources another talent pool for employees. He turns to agriculture.

“Most of our better candidates come from agriculture,” says Upp, whose corporate office is located in Springfield, Mo. “On the farming side, they tend to be a little more mechanical in nature. If something breaks, they can figure out how to get it going again. Think about driving big tractors or hay balers. That tends to filter over to our mobile equipment.”

Agriculture doesn’t meet all of Conco’s needs. Upp’s experience is like a number of aggregate producers’ in that quality employees are hard to find. Upp believes the last recession is a contributor to the challenge Conco currently faces.

“We’re not back to full-time, 12-month operation yet,” he says. “Because of the recession we haven’t fully recovered. Part of our issue is you have a workforce out there that wants to work, but they want full-time jobs. They don’t want to be laid off two to three months in the winter. They want to work 12 months out of the year.”

The jobs Conco and other aggregate producers provide are good-paying ones with benefits, Upp says. The jobs do attract a number of applicants, and some positions – haul truck drivers, for instance – are easier for Conco to fill.

But, in some cases, job ads attract applicants who aren’t ideal for the positions available.

“You get a lot of over-the-road truck drivers who want to come off the road,” Upp says. “They’ve got driving experience but very little quarry experience.”

One strategy Conco employs to overcome the lack of quarry experience is to cross-train new hires.

“It takes a while to develop skills in crushing and screening,” Upp says. “If we have plants shut down, we’ll put a truck driver with a skilled plant maintenance person and have them change screens or rollers so they understand how some of the plant works. Those are your future plant maintenance people.”

According to Upp, one advantage aggregates has over other mining sectors is that quarries are located virtually everywhere across the United States. A graduate with a mine engineering degree can take a job virtually anywhere in the United States.
Other mining sectors don’t necessarily offer the location flexibility aggregates does, Upp adds. But other sectors offer other benefits that put aggregates at a disadvantage.

“I sit on the development board for Missouri S&T’s Mining Engineering program,” he says. “I represent aggregates on the board, which is also represented by coal, underground coal, hard rock mining, metal mining – the full gamut of mining sectors. Those sectors are looking to recruit, and where the aggregates sector is struggling is that the other mining sectors have a higher pay scale.”

Upp estimates that 20 to 30 percent of graduates choose aggregates because they love the industry and they’re not concerned about making more money in another area. Income is a determining factor for many other potential candidates, though.



“Aggregates companies really can’t afford to shell out $80,000 to $90,000 a year for a starting graduate,” Upp says. “But you’ve got to remember that you can live in any state in any part of the country and find an aggregates operation somewhere close. When you look at coal, gold or lead, those operations are generally not located close to any large communities, so the social aspect of your life is greatly diminished.

Jenna Emerson, legislative and public affairs manager of Florida and the Carolinas for Cemex, describes some of the same labor challenges for the Southeast that Upp does for the Midwest. A number of quarry workers are nearing retirement, and finding replacement workers is a challenge Cemex faces.

A management training program has helped Cemex combat the challenge, though.

“We started our management training program three years ago,” Emerson says. “We hire right out of college. A lot of times we’re looking for someone with an engineering background.”

Cemex’s program lasts 18 months, Emerson says. Trainees rotate around areas of the company, meeting people and gaining understanding of different aspects of the business.

“They’ll start them in operations and float between an aggregates operation to ready-mix to cement to see where they fit,” she says. “They’ll get on a haul truck and get on a dredge. They’ll see our business.”

Those experiences can mold tomorrow’s leaders. Association experiences can make leaders as well, Upp says.

“One thing associations could do is push their student chapters,” he says. “It’s putting more emphasis on those and having more social environments where student chapters can send kids to the annual NSSGA meeting, AGG1 or ConExpo-Con/Agg.”

They said it

“We have to develop very robust co-op programs to bring [kids] along while they’re going to school. So when they do graduate they’re saying, ‘This is exactly what I want to do. I enjoyed it. It’s a great industry.’” – Jeff Heinemann, 
Sandvik Mining & Construction

“We lost a lot of people with the downturn of the economy – a lot of field people that we haven’t replaced. When we need to fill a position, we need somebody to fill that role that comes in qualified. It’s been very difficult to do sometimes.” 
– Keith Whetsel, Essroc Cement

“If people were aware of the work we had to do in our country, people would be attracted to the industry. My kids are all out of school. You talk to them and meet their friends, and no one talks about going into the aggregate industry, the construction industry, the mining industry.” – Fred Gross, FLSmidth Excel

Take note

The mining industry pays some of the highest wages in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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About the Author:

Kevin Yanik is editor-in-chief of Pit & Quarry. He can be reached at 216-706-3724 or

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