Work shortage solutions

By |  February 24, 2020
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John Scepaniak, project manager at Wm. D. Scepaniak, is a third-generation employee of his family company. Photo by John Scepaniak

John Scepaniak is project manager at Wm. D. Scepaniak, a Minnesota-based contractor and producer with annual sand and gravel volumes exceeding 6 million tons. As both a millennial and a third-generation employee of his family company, Scepaniak has a unique perspective balanced between old school and new school approaches. Scepaniak visited with Pit & Quarry during an exclusive interview on his company’s unique approach to overcoming a labor shortage. 

What are some of the hiring and workforce initiatives at Wm. D. Scepaniak in 2020?

We want to continue to improve the ways we attract, develop and retain our workforce, and I think we’re doing a good job with that. We’re family-owned and operated, and we’ve been slower to adapt to a lot of changes. But I think we’re shifting our focus and getting on the forefront with a lot of different things.

Up until the past few months, our recruiting and hiring responsibilities were placed upon my cousin Jake (Scepaniak) and myself, with our new employee onboarding process being handled by our payroll administrator. It was working, but it was a cumbersome system at times.

We recently added a talent acquisition/human resources manager to oversee the full scope of the hiring process. We saw that as an opportunity to improve, given that Jake and I spend the majority of the season traveling to projects. We were missing out on many great candidates who would apply midseason because we weren’t around to interview them.

Simply put, our scale had outgrown our current method, and we feel confident that we will see immediate benefits in 2020 from our new process.

In retrospect, over the last decade, our workforce has grown about 200 percent. A big obstacle that has kept us from scaling further is retainage. We’ve seen a turnover that occurs after one to five years of employment. We would bring people in with minimal to no industry experience, train them, get them really going in their role and, at the beginning of the next season, they’d go work somewhere else. A lot of times it wasn’t even in our industry.

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Wm. D. Scepaniak produces more than 6 million tons of sand and gravel each year, making it one of the nation’s top producers. Photo by John Scepaniak

It’s difficult and can be frustrating to spend time investing in people with the fear that they will leave, but that shouldn’t detract you from doing so. You need to continue to invest in people, and it’s ultimately going to fall down to attrition.

People may give your company and industry a shot for a few years and decide it’s not for them, but the majority will stick around and buy into your mission. So make sure you treat them well.

A way we’re improving employee development and, as a result, retainage, is having ongoing conversations with our employees about their goals – both personally and professionally, and how we can best align them to achieve those goals.

I believe a contributing factor to why we have lost some key people in the past has been a lack of direction. The “path” wasn’t always clear on how to get promoted within the company. A large part of my time on mining sites is simply talking with our employees, initiating the conversation to see if they feel challenged enough in their current role, things they like about their role, and things we can do better as an organization. I take a lot of stock in feedback from our people on the frontline.

We’re beginning to implement the process where we promote people before they’re asking for it, and we’re seeing that be successful because we’re getting some guys to step up into leadership positions – maybe before they even think they’re entirely ready. I think that’s something we were lacking in the past.

It all goes back to keeping an open dialogue with your people, knowing who is content with their current role and who is willing to take on a leadership role when the opportunity arises. Case in point, this spring we needed a foreman unexpectedly on a project in Minnesota, so we called up one of the guys we felt was ready to step up from our Colorado project. That following Monday, we were on the ground in Minnesota getting him orientated to that crushing plant.

Like a lot of guys in the industry, our biggest challenges ahead are going to be people. We can buy all the machinery in the world and things like that, but we need to continue to find, develop and retain good people. We’re getting much better at that as a company, but it’s something we don’t want to write off that we solved. We want to continue to develop new strategies with that and keep working on it.

Do you have a more difficult time finding and hiring people or retaining people once they are hired?

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Dave Davies, known on-site as “Dozer Dave,” joined Wm. D. Scepaniak in 2014. Davies runs a bulldozer full-time on the company’s North Dakota and South Dakota projects. Photo by John Scepaniak

That answer is heavily dependent on what position we’re trying to fill. We talk to other contractors locally, and the one common question is: How do you find a crusher foreman? We always tell them, truth be told, you don’t find them, you have to make them.

We’ve seen the most success with that, bringing somebody in as an equipment operator, training them – even if they’re starting on a loader and have never seen a mine site in their life – and within two years they’re running our crushing spreads. If an individual has the aptitude and work ethic, we can handle getting them up to speed on the technicalities.

Attracting people to our company has never been an issue. We see a lot of success through referrals [by] current employees. They tell their friends and family that they really like working for us. It’s good work, and I think they see the very quality lives these guys are able to lead.

We work seasonally, so a lot of these guys are working seven to nine months out of the year, then there’s a three- to five-month, essentially, vacation they can take. These guys are able to make a very good living working part of the year, so I think that’s attractive to a lot of people in our region.

Our guys do a really good job of spreading the gospel of what we’re about, how we work, and it’s been good. It makes it very easy for me to hire somebody when they know somebody who works for us because they know what the good and bad days look like. That’s helpful for us.

What are your thoughts on the current generation entering the workforce and the generations that are coming?

I see a really bright future with a lot of the young people. I know it’s kind of fun for people to rag on [millennials], but some of the most ambitious people I have working for me are 20 years old.

Out of our plant operators and foremen, the majority of them are 35 years old and younger. We actually have a few guys running plants who are 21 years old. They came to us right out of high school, started running loaders and now they’re foremen on projects at 21 years old.

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Bryan Scepaniak, John’s brother, joined the family company after graduating from college. He currently served as a road crew foreman.

It’s awesome for me to see that, because I used to be the youngest guy all the time. Now, as I get closer to 30, that’s not so much the case. It all goes back to these guys seeing the kind of life they can lead just by hitting the ground running and being loyal to the company. We like to reciprocate that loyalty.

Are there any other organizations you’ve picked up hiring advice or practices from?

The one that stands out is Keaton [Turner] and his [Turner Mining Group]. I think they’ve done a great job at championing that and changing that outlook. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him and his organization for doing that. It helped me change my perspective.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about this, and the best way I can summarize it is if you want to hire a strong workforce, as a leader, be somebody that you would want to work for. If you look around and don’t like your work culture, fix it.

As a leader your people will always reflect the energy you put out, so don’t be afraid to smile and crack a few jokes. I’m beginning to realize that it’s not always about spreadsheets and profit margins, but rather showing your team that you care. The industry is changing, and I’m thankful to be a part of it.

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