Keeping qualified employees in a candidate-driven market

By |  April 6, 2023
Photo: izusek/E+/Getty Images / Getty Images Plus

Aggregate producers can increase retention rates from the very beginning by ensuring new employees have a rewarding experience. Photo: izusek/E+/Getty Images / Getty Images Plus

Where did all the workers go?

That question is being asked more often by employers in the aggregate industry as they confront a continuing shortage of qualified job candidates.

“The workforce is so tight right now that our members are having trouble finding folks with the needed skillset,” says Pat Jacomet, executive director of the Ohio Aggregates & Industrial Minerals Association (OAIMA).

Manufacturers are faring no better than their mining counterparts.

“It’s like the workforce has evaporated, and we don’t know where they’ve gone,” says Matthew Fasoli, general manager at Luff Industries.

One reason for the personnel shortfall is the retirement of baby boomers.

“We’ve seen a mass exodus of our 55- to 65-year-old employees,” Fasoli says.

Another problem, he says, is excess cash in the system. People have more money in their pockets due to government financial payments meant to soften the blow of the pandemic. That has reduced the incentive to go out and land a job.

The industry’s special personnel needs reduce the number of employable prospects. Workers must be able to operate heavy equipment safely, remain drug free and exhibit a strong work ethic.

“This is an industry where people need to be on-site,” Jacomet says. “The jobs are often more than 9 to 5. We may be working two or three shifts – and also Saturdays when material is needed.”

Strong demand

One might expect a slowing economy to result in layoffs that would increase the pool of available workers. But that’s not the case.

Unemployment has recently been running at an enviable 3.5 percent, a level many economists figure represents a “full employment” condition.

Also, other industries are ready and willing to offer higher salaries to those people who do enter the job market.

“We are located in Calgary, Alberta, so we are competing for workers on a regular basis with the oil and gas sector,” Fasoli says. “As soon as the price of a barrel oil goes up to $80 plus, we start feeling the competition. That means we have to throw quite a bit more money per hour at the employees.”

Other regions are experiencing their own mix of competitive forces. In Ohio, for example, a number of major industrial initiatives are expected to put pressure soon on available frontline workers. These include an Intel chip factory, a Honda battery plant and a Google tech center.

“I’m sure there’s going to be a drain on the workforce in central Ohio, if not the rest of the state, as folks gravitate toward those big projects,” Jacomet says.

Reaching out



The industry is not powerless to counteract these trends. It possesses some characteristics, in fact, that are attractive to newcomers.

“In competing for workers with the oil and gas industry that tends to go through economic cycles, we promote the fact that we offer job stability,” Fasoli says. “That can be especially important for family guys with mortgages and car payments.”

The industry can also polish its public image to become more attractive to young people who make up the bulk of its prospective workforce. Junior and senior high schoolers tend to plan careers elsewhere, perceiving mining as mired in the pick-and-shovel operations of a century ago.

“Young people don’t realize the technology that is in our industry today,” says Jackie Alf, executive vice president at Melvin Stone. “You need to be somewhat technical, for example, to run one of our loaders, or to operate a drone to capture inventory.”

Some companies have established internships to get young people excited about the aggregate world.

“One challenge is that employees have to be 18 years old to work in a mining environment,” Alf says. “But we can employ them in areas outside of the mines and get them acclimated and familiar with the industry.”

Referrals from current employees can also help.

“We’ve really pushed a program that promotes recruiting employees internally through friends and family,” Fasoli says. “That has paid forward in spades.”

At first, Fasoli was reluctant to pursue employee referrals, fearing their effect on workplace morale.

“I’ve seen companies end up with little cliques of individuals who create a kind of Old Boys Club, and treat new employees like outsiders,” Fasoli says. “Actually, we have experienced the opposite effect. People are now feeling more a part of a team.”

One unanticipated benefit has been an increase in employee carpooling.

“It’s a win-win type situation,” Fasoli says. “They save a little bit on transportation costs, and we get a few more freed-up parking spots in the yard. And we’re doing our part, too, to save the environment.”

Internet sites such as Indeed, Workable and ZipRecruiter can also be good sources of employees, although competition from other industries can reduce the number of suitable applicants. A new service called Fountain aims to increase the effectiveness of web-based recruitment of hourly and blue-collar workers using software designed to work on mobile phones.

“We make it easy for a person to start a job application,” says Sean Behr, CEO of Fountain. “All they need to provide is their name and cell phone number. And then they answer a few questions.”

The service’s questions are partly geared toward identifying which applicants have the previous experience that make them more promising prospects. If the individual abandons the application for some reason, the system saves their entries and sends them periodic friendly reminder texts that invite them to continue the process.

“The messages tell the applicant that the company is excited to have them continue their application,” Behr says.

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