Who’s taking over? Training the next generation of builders

Every generation questions the preparedness of its youth. Even Plato lamented in 4th Century BC: “What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders. They disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?”

With construction starts in most areas still sluggish and unemployment rates high, it’s not yet an issue, but when the building business does bounce back, will younger workers be able – or willing – to meet the demand?

We went looking for opinions and first hand experiences from rural builders across the country.

Photo courtesy of David Bohnoff, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Hire attitude, 
the aptitude will come
Sam Cottrell of Hos-Cot Builders, Inc., Hoosick, N.Y., knows a thing or two about youth in business. He is now a 39-year veteran of the trade but he and his business partner, Stuart Hoskins, were in their mid to late 20s when they started Hos-Cot Builders. Today, they don’t currently employ anyone younger than about 35, not because they don’t want to but because they don’t have to. “Most of the people we have, have been here at least 10 years,” Cottrell says. “We have people who’ve been here over 35.”

The newest worker came about a year ago and was acquired the way most of them are, through a current employee referral.

Several came as young guys and never left. How is the company able to keep them? “A fair wage and responsibility,” Cottrell says. “I give them all the responsibility they’ll take.”

It comes with a positive, upbeat attitude that lets them know the responsibility is there for the taking. “We have an incredible group of guys. I’ll say, ‘let me know if I’m loading your wheelbarrow too heavy,’ and they’ll say, ‘don’t worry about it, keep puttin’ it on, I’ll tell you when it’s too heavy.’

“I think you’ve also got to be positive and upbeat with them, enthusiastic,” Cottrell continues. “Enthusiasm spreads down the ladder; enthusiasm is not going to spread up the ladder.”

Cottrell also follows a theory about labor. “A guy told me a long time ago: ‘you want to hire attitude, don’t worry about aptitude, that’ll come.’ So I’ve always done that. Some of the guys I hired didn’t have any experience and that’s the way I wanted it.”

A case in point is a crewmember he hired over 30 years ago who came out of college with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. “When he came, he said ‘I like to ski so I want to be in this area, but I’ll be gone in the spring.’ Well, that was over 30 years ago and he’s still here.”

Involving workers in big decisions as well as small is something Cottrell also does on a regular basis. “Whether it’s the purchase of a new truck or a backhoe, I involve them in the process,” he says. “I think it’s important for them to know their opinion does matter and I think it gives them a sense of belonging.”

Hos-Cot Builders has two crews working: one for agricultural buildings and one for commercial. They’ve always used on-the-job training and their seasoned crewmembers now take on the responsibility of training any newcomers. “They just train them the way they want them to be trained, out in the field. If they don’t make it, they don’t make it,” Cottrell explains.

Cottrell says he remembers his dad saying the same things about the past generation as he catches himself saying now but he can’t help note: “Now when they get out of school they want to run a computer. Well, someone’s got to pick the cotton, everyone can’t run the computer.”

At the end of the day, however, he thinks there’s still a good future in the trade: “Everybody’s not going to pack it in,” he believes.

Good attitude starts young
Leon Leinbach, owner of Key Stone Post Frames, Elkton, Ky., also enjoys a crew of long-term employees. Providing a good atmosphere, setting goals and giving bonuses are motivations he has found effective.

He also believes there’s nothing as effective as on-the-job training. “I send them out with the best men in the field for about one or two years,” he says. The only drawback to such a one-on-one training program is that it limits the number of new workers he can hire.

Key Stone Post Frames has 14 employees whose work encompasses a 100 mile radius. To keep everyone in tune with what’s happening, they meet as a group about once a month “to talk about what we are focused on trying to accomplish within the company,” Leinbach says, “and where we could do better.”

Leinbach is concerned about declining work ethic as well as degrading morals of the younger generation. “You will get the most out of any person if they were taught quality work ethic and social skills when growing up, before they turn 16,” he believes. Without that, he says there will be fewer hardworking people with a good work ethic to take on the future of the trade.

Farm boys rule!
At Gee Building Systems, Inc., Shenandoah, Iowa, Kim Gee laments her difficulty in finding young help “that can actually pass a pee test! Gone are the GOOD farm boys!” she continues; a point we heard echoed by others we interviewed. “I will sound like my parents but I don’t think there is a large pool of young kids that like to get hot and sweaty that doesn’t involve a basketball game,” she jokes.

Still, Kim and her husband Gil can usually find good summer help by using word-of-mouth references and hiring friends of one of their younger sons. “Depending on the age, cash is king with college kids,” she says. “They can get a lot of hours in a short amount of time.”

Gee Building Systems projects are wide and varied and so is its territory (southwest Iowa, northwest Missouri and southeast Nebraska). “We are Raynor Garage Door dealers (residential and commercial), Eaton/Conrad-American Grain Bin dealers, Sentinel All-Steel dealers as well as being a Wick post-frame dealer. In one day a person might work on three to four different projects – put a door in, fix an operator, use a skid steer to level a site,” Gee explains. She depends on the older guys to teach “the newbies.” She’ll turn to a crew leader for feedback. “I value their opinion as to whether a new hire has what it takes: do they catch on; are they fumble fingers; how are they with the customers?”

Gee says one of the company’s manufacturers does offer a training session for new hires but it’s difficult to part with an employee long enough to take advantage of it. “That would be great to send someone there but we are a small business and having an employee – new or otherwise – gone for a week, pay all the expenses and the class itself probably is not going to happen.”

Gee understands that it takes a particular kind of person – young or old – to work successfully in the construction business. She sees it first hand with her own family. Four of her five children have worked in the business, but only one is likely to land there some day. “He has a construction aptitude and has great people skills,” she says of her youngest. “I would like to train him in sales but his interests are not there at this point. He graduates in May. He is going to return home to work construction but not with us. And we are both great with that as well. He will learn so many new skill sets with the contractor – a younger contractor he will work with – that we couldn’t be happier!”

Finding people who are ready to settle down has paid off for Gee in the past. A case in point is one of the company’s lead men. “When we hired Jason Manrose he was what I consider young, 30 years old,” she says. “He has been with us 10 years and he is a great asset to our company. He has come so far on not only his skills but as a person. See, the way I look at it, if you are not growing with skills and as a person, what are you doing here? A young person has to be challenged, learn new skills, become a better customer service person. This has happened with Jason. When he started he knew nothing about our business. Now he is a lead man. We look to him to help his fellow employees. He thinks on his feet and just gets in there to get the job done. We wish we had three more just like him, and I do not mean to downgrade our other employees with that comment. It is just that he is a leader.”

History repeats itself
Jim Betonte, president of M&W Building Supply Co., Canby, Ore., says he finds the best young hires from friends and relatives of current employees, “since usually they are fully informed of what the job entails before they are hired, carpool with their friend or family member to the jobsite and they seem more willing to listen to instruction and learn the trade more readily.”

Most young workers at M&W are college students hired for summer work; a plus if they return subsequent summers since they’ll need less training.

Motivating younger workers does present challenges, Betonte says, primarily because “they typically do not have a family to support” and consequently tend to be less reliable.

Expectations at M&W are clearly stated. “We stress being on time and showing up to work ready to start the day,” Betonte says. “Not only do you have to be physically prepared to work, but be mentally ready.” As an incentive, all new employees are on a 90-day trial basis, with pay increases tied to reaching different stages of knowledge and skill.

Training is the same regardless of age. “Their past work experience dictates how fast the training process takes,” Betonte says. “With a young worker who is a friend or relative of a long time employee the training seems to go faster as they are usually more aware of what a jobsite is like and the safety and job requirements needed. Safety is a big concern for a new employee as most accidents happen in the first year of employment. Younger employees are trying to impress their supervisor and tend to ‘hurry’ the job and it often puts them and their co-workers in harm’s way. We have found that it helps to have a mentor who will coach the new employee and is there to answer questions and/or make corrections when needed.”

M&W started business in 1981. “We started the business in a recession, a down market, with a handful of employees and built it up to 50 employees selling and building 500 post-frame buildings a year until recently,” Betonte explains. Although the business has scaled back to 20 employees and 150 buildings per year, they still cover the entire Pacific Northwest area.

The recession has helped M&W attract a better quality of worker. “I don’t see the economy in Oregon changing in the next few years,” Betone says. “If the economy does get better, the quality of employees goes down and is harder to keep. However our average employee has been here for 14.5 years. We have built a family atmosphere and a friendly place to work. In the past, many of our younger workers who have quit to find greener pastures, have returned to ask for their jobs back and I suspect that will still be true even when the economy comes back.”

One concern in the trade is how well a younger employee will handle customers. Sometimes the youth can surprise you. “A year ago we had a customer with a terrible rocky and difficult site,” Betonte begins. “The customers were older and on a very limited budget.” Despite recommendations for hiring a backhoe, the couple decided to save money and dig the holes themselves. “One of our youngest and newest employees was to go to the site when they were done digging the holes and pour the concrete footings,” Betonte explains. “When the customer called to let us know they were ready, our employee went to the site to discover the holes were nowhere near deep enough.” On his own time, the young employee stayed on the jobsite until 10 p.m. to dig the holes by hand and pour the footings for them. “Needless to say the customers gave him a glowing report,” Betonte says.

It is because of instances like this that Betonte remains hopeful. “Training the next generation is something that every generation goes through,” he states. “My father told me that my generation was going to screw up the world. We seem to have made it anyway. There are days I feel the same way, but I believe the next generation will do just fine. If they keep the same values their parents and grandparents had which include hard work, honesty and determination, we will remain the greatest nation on earth.” -by Sharon Thatcher, RB


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