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To find workers, construction companies increasingly call on HR experts

Breanne McClellan, hired to oversee training and development at HB McClure Co., discusses the HB University program at a breakfast meeting of all employees. - (Photo / Submitted)

If there really is a population of unemployed millennials living in their parents’ basements, and the construction industry is suffering a skilled labor shortage, how does one make that seemingly perfect match happen?

Industry leaders hope an image revamp and fresh messages will fill those jobs with workers from a generation unfamiliar with the perks of construction.

But they also are getting some help from professionals. Over the last year or so, midstate construction firms have been creating new HR positions to draw employees from a generation hard to target. Hints of new recruitment strategies are couched in the newcomers’ job titles: “talent developers” hired to “enhance employee empowerment.”

“There’s a need for someone to attract those inexperienced workers into the construction industry and take care of the new hires specifically,” said Melinda Hershner, who two months ago took the newly minted position of personnel development coordinator at Yorkbased Stewart & Tate Inc.

Hershner and her industry counterparts are charged with making construction seem, well, less like that temporary job taken just to get by and more like a planned career path with opportunities as sexy and premeditated as anything offered on a traditional college track. And the industry is digging deeper to reach the younger set.

In 2000, York Township-based Kinsley Construction developed an apprenticeship program. Now a new program offers high school seniors a one-credit, pre-apprenticeship at 15 York County schools. Kinsley President and COO Jon Kinsley hopes the new program leads students into apprenticeships to help relieve labor shortages throughout the county.

An emphasis on career

Hershner said Stewart & Tate is trying to get potential employees to see construction as a long-term career that can be managed and fulfilling. With more than 30 positions to fill, Hershner must also boost retention.

Amy Spangler

“Construction doesn’t have to be a short-term means of living,” she said. “It’s a career – not just a job. We’re trying to change the culture and get the next generation to think that way. The younger generation hasn’t been brought up with that oldschool mentality of what it means to earn a dollar and they’re not used to working in the elements. That’s definitely presenting a challenge to us.”

Stewart & Tate promises a good wage plus a 90-day review that is almost like a student meeting with a guidance counselor – employees are asked if they like their jobs or have other interests in the company, and then a training path is mapped out for them to get there.

“We offer them different levels of training or a move to another

division if they don’t like what they’re doing,” Hershner said. “We’re presenting options within the company and a strategy for their life and security. And I’m continually engaging them because millennials want to be constantly engaged, so we’re catering to that mentality.”

Hershner, who has a psychology degree, was a part-time restaurant server so she could stay home with her young sons. Later, she was an Exelon training coordinator before being laid off and had two years in business development with a paving contractor. She understands career starts and stops.

“My background is diverse,” she said. “Stewart & Tate recognized that I had a unique skill set that would be able to attract not just the traditional construction worker.”

Naturally, women are also in her recruitment sights.

“This industry is empowering to women,” she said. “We have three women currently on board. I have two boys at home and this company has been great for the working mother. There’s discussion of having our own daycare here, so we’re looking at the long-term picture.”

Making benefits meaningful

About a year ago Harrisburg-based mechanical contractor HB McClure Co. named Brandy Shope as corporate director of human resources – a new position created “to enhance internal communications and employee empowerment.”

“The downfall of the entire industry is that we have not done a good job of making the construction industry sound attractive,” Shope said. “It’s not flashy like being a doctor or lawyer. But you can make $30,000 or $50,000 or $70,000 a year.”

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Part of Shope’s job is pitching what the industry offers in a way that’s meaningful to the age of her target employees. Shope said HB McClure’s employee stock ownership plan is a draw to potential employees of a certain age, but retirement benefits just don’t make an impact on millennials. But as a former recruiter for Northwestern Mutual, she learned to pitch the ESOP message so it speaks to a younger audience.

“It doesn’t matter what industry it is, when you’re 20 years old, you’re thinking about fun, you’re thinking about how you can get out of your parents’ house, not your retirement,” she said. “So I made an ESOP attractive to them by saying, ‘How would you like to own an $80 million business without putting any money out?’ That’s the sense of ownership that the millennials and the iGeneration want.”

Ownership isn’t the only benefit on tap

HB McClure acquired 11 companies in the past six years and now has 27 job categories. With 20-plus positions to fill, it made sense to develop “HB University,” a series of training modules designed to move employees into advanced or lateral positions. The company has its own YouTube channel as well as in-classroom training.

Shope is also using Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube to recruit, and a new recruitment video is getting eyes – nearly 5,000 views in a month. She said putting employees front of center will bring more in.

“We’re 100-percent employee focused,” she said. “That’s how we’re getting through the shortage.”

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