How To Retain Craft Labor Through A Shortage? Instill A Culture Of Support

The number of Americans in construction may have jumped by 52,000 jobs in January, but the industry is still feeling the pressure when it comes to a subset of its workers: craft laborers, the trained specialists who wield the tools and experience to keep a construction site running. As the construction industry ages, a generation of craft employees is matriculating out of the workforce, and companies have few new prospects to fill their boots. Faced with a dwindling pipeline of skilled craft employees, construction companies are investing in new technologies to help employees work smarter, as well as partnerships to introduce younger workers to craft labor. But, they are also investing in more widespread cultural changes to help recruit, train and retain their most valuable employees. “Our craft employees are our most valuable resource, so investing in them is a top priority,” said Lauren Nunnally, general manager of the Craft Services team at Swinerton, one of the nation’s largest contractors. “We have to offer these workers more than just a strong paycheck — we want to offer mobility, training, a whole career.” When Nunnally started the Swinerton Craft Services department in 2016, she was the sole member of the team. Now, she leads a department of 18 people dedicated to supporting craft employees and advocating for their needs, from hiring and training to payroll and culture. The goal is to build a strong pipeline of skilled craft talent and to make Swinerton the best, most responsive construction company for craft employees, she said. She said owners and clients may not realize how important having experienced craft labor in their corner is until they work with a contractor that doesn’t take care of its craft employees. “Having trained and loyal craft employees is crucial to safety, speed and quality,” Nunnally said. “These are the employees who can get the job done right the first time without having to do any rework. They make assets that last a lifetime, and they know how to keep themselves and others safe on site.”

Dedicated craft employees make a construction site hum, Nunnally said — they provide the valuable hands-on training that new employees need in addition to practical work in a classroom.  Swinerton has been investing in ways to help employees work smarter using technology — mobile clock-in-clock-out apps, wearable tech, productivity tracking and reporting tools — but Nunnally said that the days of robots and automation significantly reducing the need for craft labor are a long way off. “The difference we’re making today is changing all the interactions our employees have by instilling a culture of learning and mentorship, and providing a path forward for every craft employee, from an entry-level position through foreman all the way to superintendent and beyond,” she said. While Swinerton is working to develop deeper partnerships with high schools, women’s groups and corrections companies to bring information about careers in construction to a wider audience, Nunnally said that retention is just as crucial as recruitment for maintaining a pipeline of craft talent. Especially in an industry where the need for labor is sometimes variable, Nunnally said providing craft employees with a clear career track and opportunities for advancement can help retain them long term. As in any industry, much of the work of retention for construction companies comes down to a positive work environment. Nunnally said Swinerton surveyed its workforce to build out a long-term road map for retention. The results were surprising: what employees wanted most was simply to be recognized by their supervisors. “Construction sites can be a sink-or-swim atmosphere, so building a culture of appreciation can make a huge difference in job satisfaction,” Nunnally said. “It costs nothing to just say thank you to our employees and acknowledge a job well done. What we get back is a more satisfied, more engaged core of employees and a better product for our clients.”

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