A Conversation about Branding Construction to Address the Labor Shortage
FRALEY: Welcome to The AEC Straight Talker Blog and thanks for joining me to discuss the labor shortage, which is arguably the most crucial issue facing the construction industry today. Let’s explore how we can properly brand construction to attract the next generation of talent.
Let’s set the stage. We’ve come a long way from the days of President Roosevelt’s New Deal where millions of American workers lined up to staff labor intensive public works projects. Our challenge in recent decades has been about attracting a new generation of workers to replace the construction industry’s aging workforce.
Wagman has the unique distinction of thriving as a 4th generation, 114-year-old family business. What is your take on the history and progression of this issue?
WAGMAN: We are fortunate that we have longevity on our side and deep roots in the community which has provided us with many people who have retired with 20, 30, or 40 years with Wagman. We currently have an employee with 50 years of service!
People today are mobile, and have higher expectations from their employer. Job opportunities are endless and there are new “trendy” jobs in the fields of technology, biotech, and environmental so now we are challenged to not just hire talent within our industry, but attract talent TO our industry. The fundamental priorities of work/life balance and overall satisfaction seem to be holding steady.
FRALEY: We often think of branding as it relates to companies, products, and services, but forget that an industry can be a brand as well. With that said, does the construction industry have a branding problem?
WAGMAN: We are very involved politically because the transportation industry is dependent on state and federal funding. We joked during the last election that the transportation brand lost when we asked what resonates better with voters: “Free Healthcare” or “Gas Tax?” We all know which one received more positive attention, airtime, and votes.
The construction industry is definitely challenged from a branding perspective. In building construction, there tends to be more excitement watching new projects come to fruition but it can be tainted by controversy of farmland being used, or perception of the cost being too high.
In transportation construction, the majority of news coverage relates to traffic accidents, problems, and delays. When construction projects are finally let the majority of focus is about schedule and related inconvenience. In reality, better, safer, more efficient infrastructure benefits everyone so that should be our industry brand.
We want our people to take pride in everything they do; they are improving our communities every day. Our industry would benefit from more positive press for all of the positive changes construction companies and projects are bringing to our communities.
FRALEY: It seems that we have lot of well-intentioned parties in the industry including trade associations, magazines, recruiters, websites, apps, and the firms themselves advocating careers in construction. Is enough being done to attract people to the construction industry?
WAGMAN: We all need to share in the responsibility. We need to attract the next generation to jobs in AEC so we all have a desirable pool of candidates to choose from. We need to sell the industry.
Not everyone is cut out for office jobs, and they need to know there are options. We can offer good family sustaining jobs and careers to individuals with and without college degrees.
Marketing construction has its challenges – we want to appeal to everyone! What we build it pretty amazing and people take great pride in their work. We need to capture it, showcase it, and let our people and projects sell themselves! We are improving our communities!
FRALEY: Marketing is about targeting the right demographic. In the case of attracting the future of the construction industry, we’re targeting Millennials and succeeding generations. You’ve spoken to many of these young people as part of your advocacy and recruiting efforts. What are they looking for and what can the construction industry do to attract them?
WAGMAN: Millennials are getting engaged, politically and with the organizations they are joining. They want to be part of something. We at Wagman are offering more employee engagement programs than ever.
We have also increased our training and development programs significantly over the past several years to meet the growing and diverse needs of our employees.
Communication and technology have a growing and evolving presence in construction that Millennials find attractive. There are also opportunities for them to become key players in the implementation of new technology within their division or group.
FRALEY: Let’s talk social media. Regardless of the source, all signs point to a substantial level of engagement by younger generations. How can the construction industry harness these platforms to engage the future of the industry?
WAGMAN: From the construction perspective, we don’t expect to “sell” or gain clientele with social media; however, we see an opportunity to reinforce and grow our brand. We are doing many different things as a growing organization with multiple specialties.
We see it as an opportunity to increase awareness of our grooving and grinding, geotechnical, bonded concrete, and special projects construction services. There is also a lot of relative industry news that we can share both with our employees and industry colleagues.
We also share a lot of company and employee news including community outreach, awards, and training on social media which provides timely insight to what is going on at Wagman.
An occasional April Fools joke, Happy Hour, and other lighter events show our fun side, which didn’t fit in traditional marketing platforms like press releases. It’s fun to share the “out takes” on social media.
We have seen increased engagement by employees and spouses, which is another way we stay connected and also benefits our employee referral programs. Social media is definitely playing an increasing role in our recruiting efforts.
FRALEY: I’m old enough to remember looking through the newspaper to find available jobs and submitting a printed letter with resume. It feels like the job search process has been turned on its head. To what extent do you think young people are confused about how to find jobs in the construction industry? Assuming there’s a disconnect, how can we tap into this segment?
WAGMAN: Every week people still walk through the door and ask if we are hiring. We also receive hundreds of resumes through our online portals.
We think the bigger concern is “are they considering jobs in construction”? When talking to guidance counselors, there are a few hurdles, particularly for high school students. Convincing parents that it is okay for their child to not go to college and then finding the best trade to meet their skills and interests are two major milestones.
Our industry needs to work with high schools to provide the facts and options for hard working students who think that if they don’t go to college they will be limited to working at a gas station or fast food for the rest of their lives. Guidance counselors, parents, and students need to know that there are good family sustaining jobs with benefits available in the industry and how to work towards those jobs (licenses, tech schools, application etc…)
FRALEY: The trend went from steering kids away from the trades to driving them toward the STEM fields. Even decision-makers in this industry were guilty. If I had a piece of rebar for every time I’ve heard a construction executive tell me they’ve steered their children and grandchildren away from the industry, I could build a bridge deck. The STEM shift is obviously beneficial for the engineering field, but do you see any evidence that it’s driving young people into the construction industry?
WAGMAN: We tend to get our best engineers from the colleges and universities who have longstanding proven engineering programs and internship programs. It’s too early to tell how much the STEM shift is benefiting the engineering field. What we have seen is an increase of opportunities to recruit at the high school level.
Construction is unique since we have jobs from tradespeople to executives; some require college degrees and some do not. Reaching kids at elementary, junior high, and high school is where the future of our industry is. We need to educate the next generation about jobs in AEC with and without a college degree.
Kids who are not college bound need to know they have options for promising careers with full benefits if they are willing to put in the work. They need to be inspired. Parents need to be convinced. Guidance counselors need to be educated.
We have been hosting Take Your Child to Work Day, and as a result, I have seen children of employees produce reports on Wagman and express interest in jobs in the industry and at Wagman. We partnered with a local high school last year and took them on a “Field Trip” to a building renovation project. I heard a student give a report on his insightful experience validating his career path in construction and two of the students applied for jobs at Wagman, one of whom was hired and the other is working on a license.
FRALEY: The word in the construction industry is that Wagman is in the vanguard when it comes to attracting talent. Can you leave us with three specific steps firms in the construction industry can take to attract and retain young workers?
- Support industry association initiatives to reach out to the next generation.
- Lead the charge – reach out to local schools and colleges to educate them on career opportunities in the industry and paths to get there.
- Empower your employees – Engage your employees. Offer a Take Your Child to Work Day Program or allow them to go to their child’s school(s) for career education days. If you are involved in any type of school construction or any project involving youth, engage the youth DURING construction.
FRALEY: Thanks for sharing your insight, Lisa. We can’t solve the labor shortage in one sitting, but we’ve at least provided some tangible ideas for construction firms looking to invest in the growth of their most important asset.
ABOUT LISA: Lisa is part of the fourth generation of Wagman, Inc., a multi-faceted construction firm with major operations in heavy civil, general construction, and geotechnical construction services. Founded in 1902, Wagman is a family-owned company operating out of offices in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Wagman has been consistently ranked among the Best Places to Work in PA.
As Vice President of Wagman, Lisa executes a strategic plan to support the business goals to grow the business operations, as well as positioning Wagman as an employer of choice. Working with the executive team and other department heads, she manages marketing strategies to meet the complex needs of the organization. She drives communications messaging through integrated deployment of numerous marketing and communications platforms while managing brand consistency for all units and operations in the Mid-Atlantic and Southern Regions.