Successfully hiring and retaining workers

By |  July 30, 2018

The following transcripts were edited from two concurrent discussions at this year’s Pit & Quarry Roundtable & Conference.

P&Q: According to a 2017 Pit & Quarry producer survey, employee retention and hiring remain two of the biggest challenges aggregate producers face. We’ve discussed this challenge at the Roundtable for years: Is this problem getting better or worse? What jobs do producers continue to struggle to fill? With which jobs have you had some success filling? How are you getting by in areas where you have shortfalls? Is a labor shortage reaching a point where it’s threatening the livelihood of your business? How is technology helping you to overcome shortfalls on the labor front? Manufacturers: Are you experiencing similar shortages on the labor front?


Hal Williford (Memphis Stone & Gravel Co.): Labor is still a huge problem in our industry. I think it’s even worse. I think someone may have mentioned it’s due to unemployment being down. It has a lot to do with it. We’ve upped our pay scales. We’re still having trouble on entry-level positions, keeping people that want to work in this type of industry.

As our chairman of the board says, we’re bidding for our own people. We decided we’re going to have to do our own in-house training, quit looking outside to find people to come in and take the [training]. We’ve tried to increase our benefits packages so we do attract and keep people. But we are just starting to put together some formal training to try to train people in different jobs and give them different opportunities. It’s going to be a long process. But instead of looking for outside schools or training associations, it’s a resource where we decided to do the training ourselves.

Brendan Devereaux (HAMM): Hal hit my thoughts right on the head. We’ve had this huge paradigm shift where we’d always be trying to fill positions with X number of years of experience, or have done this type of work, and it wasn’t working. So we finally had to say we’re going to just hire people that want a job, have interest in working for our business, and we’re going to train them over time to take on the skills that we need them to have. So there have been challenges with that.

Photo courtesy of Pete Lien & Sons

The industry’s labor problem is compounded as essential workers move into retirement. Still, young prospects want assurance from companies that they have room to grow in their positions. Photo courtesy of Pete Lien & Sons

But I think there are also benefits in that kind of start-from-scratch mentality, where you have a good opportunity to have someone as part of your business and not the hired gun per se. It’s definitely a major shift and something we’ve been facing for at least three or four years.

Alton Hudson (Trimble): One of the things we’re trying to do with automation is help the producers. We’ve got requests for more training as you guys experience that turnover. We have to come back in and assist with that in-house training. We’re trying to supplement what your goals are with training.

In addition, to eliminate some of those new employee mistakes, the equipment itself is transmitting the data that you’re trying to collect in your day-to-day operations. We’re trying to also help you there instead of expecting that guy to record something in a spreadsheet for you or on a piece of paper. We transmit that data using automation to reduce some of the errors in recording, but at the same time we go in and partner with you through in-house training.


Gary Hirsch (Bramco-MPS): On the producer’s side with labor shortages, as a distributor, our challenge is field technicians and shop technicians that have training and adequate numbers of people. We were doing the same thing in the past, trying to take them from other distributorships.

We started a training program. It’s a two-year program and we have 14 branch locations. We’ll start a class with six to eight people out of trade schools with some experience. They’ll come into a central campus in Louisville one week a month, and then three weeks a month they’re back being mentored in the local branch. If you get a year and a half of all of the same education, in the last six months they specialize in manufacturing and they start going to manufacturing schools.

What we found out after we graduated two classes, so far, is they were ready to go into field service trucks and be very independent. We found they bonded well with each other and they were reviewed every six months and counseled.

As for our retention rate, we usually lose one or two at the beginning, but we usually end up with about eight by the time we’re done with a two-year cycle. So it’s helped us a lot, rather than trying to take people from other places and things like that.

John Garrison (Superior Industries): [It’s] kind of the same way on the manufacturer’s side. It’s kind of a twofold thing. You need workforce to manufacture the machines. You need good welders and good assembly people, people that are able to work your shop and actually manufacture the equipment. On the market-facing side, you need engineers to develop that product and you need field service technicians to support it.


I think in our industry, the biggest thing we struggle with is getting enough engineers. We have a lot of engineers, but it always seems to be bottom leg, especially when you get busy. To get engineers who are interested in this industry or know anything about it, you have to do a lot of recruiting at the college level and you spend most of your time educating on what the industry is and less time about what kind of mechanical engineering they’re going to be doing.

On the manufacturing side, it’s difficult to find people who want to work in manufacturing. There has been a lot of work done here recently. We’re talking about vocational programs and schools. Mike Rowe has been beneficial with all that he’s done in starting his foundation. It’s brought back [the idea] that it’s okay to be a plumber or a welder again, and actually some of those are really high-paying jobs.

We have our own certified weld school. We’ll bring young people in and they’ve got virtual video games. You can gauge their interests pretty quickly if they want to do it. And then we’ve got the classroom setup so you can actually weld and weld certify. We found out pretty quickly who the people are that are good at it or interested in it, and then you can train them, enter them and get them working in the shop for you.

Another big thing [with] the younger workforces: the word ‘opportunity’ has been used a few times. They want to know that there is opportunity for growth. Otherwise, they will spend two years there, soak up a lot of knowledge and take it somewhere else. So when you find people that you see are good up and comers, you’re working with them on a career path so they don’t feel like they’re just getting pigeon-holed and they’re going to be doing the same thing for the next 20 years.

Photo courtesy of Atlas Copco

Generally, it’s been difficult to find people who want to work in manufacturing, says Superior Industries’ John Garrison. Photo courtesy of Atlas Copco

Pat Jacomet (OAIMA): This is something that is very near and dear to my heart. Several years ago, we formed a workforce development committee within the association. A very high percentage of our members are over the age of 50, and a significant portion of them are over the age of 60. So we’re looking at this aging workforce. We’ve looked at career technology centers. We’ve looked at partnering with colleges. And I think we’re getting close to putting together a training program that can help our members with the retention part. But our approach is several-fold.

We have to elevate our industry as a career choice. There are so many jobs related to our industry. It doesn’t have to be a loader or operator. It could be an engineer or manufacturing. We’ve got, in Ohio, 5,500 boots on the ground, but we’ve got 40,000 ancillary jobs that support those in equipment manufacturing, tire and rubber, [etc].

We have to set expectations on reliability, work ethic and pass a drug test. That’s not asking a whole heck of a lot. We are talking about that when we go in the schools and we talk to teachers. We talk to K through 12 students, [saying] ‘Hey, this is important. You have to make good life choices. And if you do that and you want to work, we have a career for you. See us when you’re 18.’

[With] training, I think we have to invest in our current employees. In March of last year, our board signed a resolution to be a veteran-friendly employer. Our association took that on and a lot of our members were doing that anyway. They have the work ethic that we are looking for and a lot of the hard skills that we’re looking for.

Also, [with] our scholarship program, we’re starting to see return on investment there. We just have to get to them a little bit earlier. Once they make a decision to go to college, we may have lost them. You don’t have to go to college to have a great career in our industry and that’s what we’re talking about right now.

Ross Duff (Duff Quarry): I’d like to piggyback on what Pat said. We have had some success [in Ohio] because we have [schools]. We recruit while they’re in school and adjust our hours to their classes, that way it opens up the door for an internship because we found the best equipment operators or plant operators are in mechanics.


They know how to fix the problem on the machine. They know how it runs, and being able to offer that while they’re in school, they’re at least going to be there for two years. So you’re good there for the training. Then they get some job experience, and we’ve had about a 30 percent retention rate. We have found with a lot of diesel colleges, a lot of the individuals coming out of the armed forces and are using the GI Bill to get their diesel education have been some of our most fantastic encounters. It’s been a good resource in a tight labor market.

Bob Martin (Cemex): We struggle with all of the skilled positions like electricians, welders [and] mobile equipment mechanics. I think the vocational system that we have in Florida is a good one, but we just don’t see a lot of good candidates. There are not a lot of good candidates coming through. Everybody goes to college to become a manager, and it’s been a struggle to find good help. We end up robbing ourselves in the industry or other manufacturers in the industry to get good help.

Dan Johnson (Anderson Columbia): On the way down [to the Roundtable], I stopped to see family, my wife’s son and his wife, definitely middle class. He’s a mail carrier, she’s a stay-at-home wife. They have three boys, ages two to 10. There’s not a Tonka truck or a construction toy anywhere in that house, [but] they’ve got toys that teach them how to code. It’s unbelievable.

Mike Johnson (NSSGA): NSSGA is doing a few things to try to address this. Number one, we have a jobs board on our website that we invite all our members to use. It has gotten a ton of traffic over the last couple of years, and our members report that they are having great success finding candidates using the jobs board.

Mike Johnson

Beyond that, we are invigorating our work with our student chapters at the mining schools across the country. That’s something that kind of went by the wayside during the downturn. We’re putting a lot more money, a lot more time into it. We’re matching up M&S (manufacturing and services) members and producer members with those student chapters to do mentorships and to help those students find jobs in the industry.

We’re working on legislative things at the federal level with the U.S. Chamber [of Commerce], reauthorization of the Perkins Act, which goes squarely to that vocational and technical training. All the money for that part of our educational funding system was cut out, so we’re trying to get it put back in. Leveraging [the] Workforce Innovation & Opportunity Act, is really a sector-based construction program to help match up folks within that sector with opportunities, and then a new apprenticeship program that the Chamber has been working really hard on to help grow what has really died in the country, which are programs to help bring folks into these jobs in our industry.

Jeff Carlisle (Douglas Manufacturing): I’m a 20-year vet in the Army, and everybody in those, there’s a guard unit. Those guys still get dirty. They’re boom mechanics. No matter what branch, they’re used to hot, sweaty – they’re used to that environment.

You can go to those armories and say, ‘I’d like to come in on drill weekend,’ and they’ll give you 15, 20 minutes to talk to those guys. You have a bunch of soldiers there who are in college, looking for jobs, or just got back from deployment, and they don’t have a full-time job yet. That might be someone that can run stuff, teach and lead. The age is good. They’re all in their 20s. So that’s something I always push every time this question comes up. Keep those guys in mind.

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