Solutions to staffing challenges

By |  February 27, 2019
While technology tends to pull job prospects to other industries, many aggregate producers have tech opportunities available that can lead to long-lasting careers. Photo:

While technology tends to pull job prospects to other industries, many aggregate producers have tech opportunities available that can lead to long-lasting careers. Photo:

While business in the aggregate industry has steadily improved in recent years, at least one serious problem persists: staffing.

The problem with staffing is two-fold: finding and hiring the right employees is one issue; retaining those same employees is another. While each company and its leadership have a different perspective and plan to combat this problem, it’s clear there’s no surefire, one-size-fits-all solution.

In an effort to combat this industry-wide issue, the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association (NSSGA) organized and hosted an online webinar featuring executives from across the industry.

Panelists featured in the webinar, titled “Solving Staffing Issues in the Aggregate Industry,” included Joel Galassini, regional president of the Texas and New Mexico region at Cemex; Karen Hubacz-Kiley, COO at Massachusetts-based Bond Construction; Mark Helm, president and CEO at Oklahoma-based Dolese Bros.; and Jill Reeder, vice president of human resources, Southwest division, at Martin Marietta. Chris Hopkins, managing principal at River Landing Solutions, moderated the webinar.

Here are some of the key answers provided during the discussion.

The state of the workforce

Headshot: Joel Galassini


Galassini: We have a shortage of skilled and unskilled labor out in the field. We have an image issue. Employees are more focused on technology jobs. It’s really becoming an issue. We’re all fighting for the same employees, and there are just not a lot of them out there.

Helm: There’s not even a lot of workforce available to us. It’s becoming imperative for us to find that workforce and encourage them to stick around. The average age of 46.5 doesn’t seem that bad, but I was talking to a technology company here in Oklahoma and their average age is 32.

Reeder: Our biggest struggle is really with the salary and management levels. Getting qualified plant managers, superintendents – it’s really a competitive market. We need to work together to educate about our industry and benefits and what we have to offer.

Hubacz-Kiley: Whether you’re a large international company or small producer, for us, the problem is entry-level. Taking the time, doing all the training, and them wanting to stay. There’s not the same drive with the younger people as the older people who maybe grew up on a farm or have a much different work ethic. It’s tough work. We run six days a week. In order for us to keep up with the demand we have, that’s what it takes, and it takes special people.

The shortage’s impact on companies

Illustrating how loader operators and others effectively made their way up in your company is one message that should be conveyed to potential new hires. Photo:

Illustrating how loader operators and others effectively made their way up in your company is one message that should be conveyed to potential new hires. Photo:

Galassini: Within the past 10 or 20 years, we as a society have pivoted away from trade and skilled labor. We push people that you need to get a four-year college education and go get a job in an office. We’ve already cut the pool, as a society, of people looking to get into the workforce. The younger generation has a much higher social conscience; they want to improve society, and we have to bridge that gap – we’re providing homes and schools and things that benefit our community.

Helm: When I start to talk about positions, short supply, how much we pay, people are surprised we’re short [on labor]. We’ve built a society that really isn’t even excited about pushing kids in this direction [of work]. Every time our economy is good, we just run out of employees.

Reeder: The lack of focus on the trade skills is hurting our industry. Getting back in front of the high schools … as an industry, we need to get back out there and start telling our compelling story.

Hubacz-Kiley: A lot of the shortage we deal with is the older miners retiring. We’re shorthanded because the economy is improving and it’s so good. A lot of the younger people we employ are farmers who have been around heavy equipment from a young age. It takes bringing in your community and doing things locally to take that taboo off.

Galassini: The labor market is definitely different from region to region, but we’re still seeing issues attracting people to this industry overall. All of our regions have a huge labor shortage. We’re attacking it from a local level, regional level, corporate level – this is an all-hands-on-deck situation for us. We’re looking across the borders and wondering how can we attract people to our industry?

Headshot: Mark Helm


Helm: It’s a cost and a challenge for us. We’re competing not only in the industry, but whether it’s the oil industry or manufacturing, everybody is reaching for the same employees.

Hubacz-Kiley: A lot of what we deal with is bringing people in [and] training. There’s a minimum of 24-hour training – that’s a big cost, and to have people say ‘you know, this isn’t for me’ is a challenge.

Galassini: We’re seeing our employees poached by other industries. If you’re a skilled welder or electrician, everybody wants you – it’s not just our industry. We’re seeing more exodus going to other industries where the economy continues to take off.

Money isn’t the issue. I’m seeing them leave for other opportunities. How do you get them to stay and work in an environment where it’s dirty, cold in the winters, hot in the summers, and your hours are dependent on weather? It’s difficult.

Reeder: Our turnover numbers are at 15 percent. The [top] reason is it’s voluntary turnover. We’re seeing that it’s for other employment, not necessarily within our industry. It goes beyond our industry.

The solutions

Helm: We have a lot of things we’re trying, a lot of ideas we’re throwing out there. Wages and benefits are something we all look at really hard and keep evaluating. We don’t have as many drivers on our aggregate side, but something we’re seeing is minimum hours for drivers and we’ll probably be doing something there with our drivers group.

One of the things we’ve worked on, and I think it’s starting to have some impact: When we have new employees come in we do orientation and centralize that, talking about safety, our culture, to try to get them into our atmosphere as quick as we can. Has it helped? I think so, but [it’s] still not where we want to be.

Headshot: Karen Hubacz-Kiley, COO at Massachusetts-based Bond Construction


Hubacz-Kiley: We really try to offer really good benefits. A lot of companies out here don’t. Being small, a big thing for us is the employees understand that I appreciate everything they do for us. I always try to make sure I thank them every day when they’re punching out. I think that goes a long way, that as a company owner I appreciate my employees.

Sometimes we buy their lunches, if they come in on a Saturday and it’s a long day, we buy breakfast. The younger people don’t want to just come in and collect a paycheck. They want to be involved and they want to grow. I think that’s really helped us retain the employees we have now.

Reeder: The intern programs with skilled trade are working. We’re seeing them come back summer after summer. The retention numbers are there, so we’re excited about that.

Galassini: Communication is key. With most of our operations, the folks in the quarries, we don’t have an easy way to communicate with them. The guy running the loader, the crushers – we’re trying to figure out ways to be better in touch with these individuals, and I don’t think an email is the easy answer.

We’re still very archaic in the way we interact with our employees. I don’t think compensation is the issue. I don’t think if we raised our rates by 20 percent we’re going to see a huge flow of people coming in.

How do we get engaged with our employees and make them feel part of the organization and they’re part of something bigger? They have to feel like they have a future within the organization and the organization has a future as well.

What hasn’t worked

Galassini: I don’t think this is a situation where you can just throw money at it. The issue is much more about retention than it is attracting. What hasn’t worked is going out and hiring recruiters to bring people in the door, because if you don’t fix some of the fundamental things that are causing people to leave, those people coming in are going to leave. Secondly, just raising wages and throwing more money at it doesn’t solve the issue long-term.

Keeping essential quarry quipment running is a tremendous challenge, one that won’t be going away anytime soon with the labor shortage the industry is experiencing. Photo:

Keeping essential quarry quipment running is a tremendous challenge, one that won’t be going away anytime soon with the labor shortage the industry is experiencing. Photo:

Helm: I tend to agree with Joel. You have to be competitive, but in our region when we’re competing with manufacturing companies or the oil industry, to match the wages those companies have is really, really difficult. So it is those internal things that you’re doing, as well, and getting them to really feel part of what’s going on and that they have some opportunity going forward. We have some leadership development programs; we offer scholarships to our employees if they want to get some further education – a number of things like that to help them look forward.

We’re trying to do a better job of telling the stories of the people who started as a laborer, truck driver or loader operator and have moved up through our organization and now are managing larger groups.

Hubacz-Kiley: Offering more money doesn’t mean you’re going to get the right people to do the right things for you. It’s not about just raising the per-hour wage – that’s not going to solve the issue. With us, it can be more on an individual basis – we only have 25 employees. It’s a little bit different in this aspect, but I think it’s really the same overall.

Reeder: We’re starting to contact more military groups – that’s one untapped resource.

NSSGA’s role in this

Galassini: I think the individual companies are responsible for executing their individual plans, but I do think the state associations and NSSGA need to be involved in crafting that story.

We have a story issue. We are not telling why this industry is a good place to work and what the benefits are. We need to get out and start to change the narrative around the industry.

It can’t just be viewed as a mining industry that’s a bunch of dirty people out in the field. We need to change that and say we’re literally building the foundation of America. We’re making this industry better.

I think the state associations and NSSGA need to help create that narrative and create that story to really start to make this industry more appealing to the future workforces, and then it’s up to the local companies to execute on their level.

Reeder: The younger generation looks for what companies are giving back to their communities. They want to add value. The fact that we impact communities in a positive way, we need to tell our story.

Hubacz-Kiley: With NSSGA or the state associations, being active members of those, we have to participate. We have to sell the story. We have to go up on Capitol Hill, we have to invite the lawmakers to come to our quarries and we need to educate everybody.

Galassini: I would agree with that, but I think it’s more than just the lawmakers – I think it’s the community. I think the peripheral benefit to that is, as we educate the community, it might get easier to open, to permit a new quarry as people understand the industry more. NSSGA has a great [slogan] – ‘Rocks Build America’ – we just need to find a way to get it out to the masses more.

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