Winning the War for Talent in Construction

Jack Morrell is director of field operations for C.M. Richey, Inc., a large, open-shop electrical contracting firm operating in the private, New York metropolitan market. A large part of Morrell’s role in the C.M. Richey organization is the continuous development and improvement of the field workforce. The war for talent in today’s construction industry is as competitive as ever. Morrell was kind enough to share with Insights readers his approach to growing his workforce.

PARÉ: Jack, you have been in the electrical trade for 35 years. How has competition for skilled labor changed over the years?

MORRELL: It has become much harder to get skilled labor. I’m not sure about the statistics, but the Baby Boomer generation is significantly larger than subsequent generations. The retirement of the Boomer generation, because of its size, depletes the labor pool disproportionately. At a high-level, there is a people shortage across the board and fewer people are choosing construction as a career. Also, the construction industry seems bigger than before. There are more projects, more contractors and more demand for skilled workers.

PARÉ: What is overall quality of people entering the workforce today?

MORRELL: It’s definitely watered down. The emphasis on being a skilled tradesman is not as high as it was years ago. Most people come in as skilled installers or helpers, but they aren’t fully-functioning electricians. What we have done the last few years is put people on projects where they can be successful, given their skill level.

PARÉ: What is different about finding skilled electricians today as opposed to before the downturn?

MORRELL: We have accessed a larger pool of people that have less of an electrical background. These are kids with a college education in marketing, business, etc., that are now going into construction because the jobs are there. They can make more money in construction than they can doing what they went to school for.

PARÉ: What is different about today’s workforce when they come to work for C.M. Richey?

MORRELL: Work ethic has definitely eroded in terms of appreciation for the job. When I came in, you were lucky to get a job. You didn’t ask questions, you didn’t make demands, and you did what you were told to do. Today, a lot of the workforce is coming in with their own set of demands or parameters for accepting the job. There are stipulations about time off and work-life balance. Being able to take time off for attending their kids’ sports events is an example. These work environments are important to this generation of workers; that’s something we have to be flexible with in order to get and retain the best people.

Also, we have a lot of divorced or single-parent employees that are not able to commit Monday through Friday to after-hours work because they have to be able to get home and take care of their family commitments. You obviously cannot make concessions for everybody, all of the time. But, for our key guys who have been with us a long time, we understand that in order for people to be effective at work, they have to be able to take care of their personal lives as well.

PARÉ: Compared to the competition, what makes C.M. Richey an attractive destination for electricians?

MORRELL: We’ve created a family environment where people actually want to be. It’s all due to our reputation with the people in the field. Either directly or indirectly, we have a reputation in the market for treating our people fairly. We’re not out to steal employees from the competition, but when friends of the company hear about good people looking for work,