Chapter Corner

Winning the War for Talent in Construction

Posted in: Features, August 2015

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, they put them directly in touch with us. Most of the guys who interview with us have been trying to get in the door for a long time because they have heard about our culture, how we treat our workers, and the opportunities that they have to grow within our company. A lot of people from smaller companies hit the ceiling both financially and mentally where they can’t go any further.

I think our hiring policy has a lot to do with it; we are a non-soliciting operation. The only way someone comes in for an interview is through a personal reference via a connection with a current employee. That is our only policy for getting an interview. When they come in, they already have a good feel for our culture and values. One of the things I hear a lot from interviewees is that they may have worked for 10 or 12 years at another company where they never received guidance in the field. They would get sent out to a job for six to 12 months with no support. They would have office support, but no field support. They hit a wall on their jobs every day. In the past, at other companies, they had no one to turn to help them get over the wall. My role up to this point has been making sure that the guys in the field have all of the support that they need. That is part of the reason people want to come to work here.

PARÉ: You are heavily involved in the BOCES program on Long Island. Tell us a little bit about the program and how you first became involved.

MORRELL: In 1948, the New York State legislature created Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) to provide shared educational programs and services to school districts within the state. Today there are 37 BOCES, incorporating all but nine of the state’s school districts. BOCES partner with districts to provide a broad range of services that help meet the evolving educational needs of students. I was a 1981 graduate of BOCES, so I was very versed in the program. It was a two-year program, five days a week. You went to school for three hours and went to BOCES for four hours. The curriculum is still very similar today, although now they have incorporated other subjects like English and Math.

After I graduated, maybe 10 years later, I started taking some of the night classes that they offered, and I began to network with other electricians and the instructors. I asked instructors about the high school programs that I went through years before. Just through conversations, they started asking me if I would like to come in and do some mentoring and grading/judging of the projects (they do a different project every two weeks). Also, I went in twice a year to talk generally about the trade to all of the students.

PARÉ: Describe your involvement in BOCES and how it benefits C.M. Richey?

MORRELL: There are three BOCES on Long Island, one in Nassau and two in Suffolk County. The combined programs have a New York State, Skills USA contest every year in March. That is when the best of the kids from all three schools go to a regional competition (where I am also involved as a judge). It opens up an avenue for me to see the best recruits that are going through this two-year program, learning the trade.

BOCES also has a cooperative program for seniors or second-year students who have maintained an 85% or better and perfect attendance. These students are allowed to go out and intern, shadow or actually work for contractors for two or three days a week. Instead of being in school, they get on-the-job training. My participation in BOCES has allowed us to identify the top kids and recruit them to come work for

C.M. Richey in the cooperative program. Also, when the students are working for us part-time, they go back to the classroom and tell the other students about their positive experiences working with C.M. Richey. The apprentices are coming to us at that point; it repeats every year.

PARÉ: Do you end up hiring most of the kids that participate in the co-op?

MORRELL: At least 90% of the kids that participate in the co-op continue to work with us full-time after graduation or until they go to college. A large percentage of these students go to Delhi University (SUNY), which offers a 2-year associates program with a technical degree in electrical construction. I sit on the Technical Advisory Board of Delhi University, as well as on the board of all three BOCES schools. Through my involvement with Delhi, I get exposure to another pool of students outside of the Long Island BOCES. I see a major change in the kids that graduate the two-year program at Delhi in terms of maturity, technical ability and skill.

PARÉ: How much time do you dedicate to these initiatives and what are the challenges with maintaining your level of involvement?

MORRELL: Between meetings, judging and traveling it’s probably about a 50- to 60-hour commitment each year. It works out to about an hour a week, although it could be more because I talk to the teachers informally quite a bit.

We also do field trips with the students and take them to active job sites. In April, for example, we will take two classes of students and their teachers to a really big job that we just completed in Nassau County. It’s a very high-end industrial job with a lot of robotics and electronics. When the kids see this job, their mouths are going to drop. The teachers love it because it helps them apply academic lessons to real-life situations. Another cool thing is that we had two students from those classes working on that job.

The kids are able to relate directly and say, “Wow, this is something I really want to do for a career.” As far as balancing my involvement with BOCES and my day-to-day job at C.M. Richey, my number one priority in my job is obviously ensuring safety for the guys in the field. My second priority is to continue to maintain and grow our field employees. So my involvement with BOCES is a natural fit.

PARÉ: Have you thought about how you will transition your involvement with BOCES to the next generation of leaders in the business?

MORRELL: It needs to be somebody that has been involved on the same level that I was with BOCES. About 40% of our current labor force has gone through a BOCES program. It is very powerful for me to be able to go back to these classes and talk about the trade. The kids can relate because I sat in their chairs 35 years ago and graduated from the same program. It carries a lot of weight and helps them see a future in what they are doing.

PARÉ: What is the attraction for kids to get into the BOCES program?

MORRELL: I knew college wasn’t for me right out of high school, even though I ended up going to college later on. A lot of these students are involved in BOCES because they are not the best high school students academically. But it gives them an avenue to apply themselves learning a skill and eventually a means to financially support themselves after graduation.

Plus the BOCES program is free! It’s 100% paid for by the school district. The school districts benefit from the program because it gives the student the best chance to succeed outside of a school environment. The last few years, they have actually had to turn students away because of the demand. Kids are starting to see that this might be a better option than going to college, spending a lot of money, and still not having a direction.

PARÉ: How do you continue to develop electricians within the company after they come on board?

MORRELL: We selectively take the best kids that come out of the Delhi University and pair them with our key foremen for two-to-four years to learn and master skills that our senior guys have acquired over 20-to-25 years of being master electricians.

We also do yearly evaluations across the board with everyone in the company. Along with the evaluation, we have criteria for position advancements. We have a five-year helper program that advances workers from a level-one helper to a level-four helper. From there he or she becomes a mechanic, then a lead mechanic and eventually advances to a foreman/journeyman position.

PARÉ: When students graduate from Delhi, where do they start out?

MORRELL: The students are working with us all along while they are in BOCES and during their summer breaks while they are at Delhi. We typically hire them in as fifth year helpers or as junior mechanics. Part of the incentive for them to go through the educational programs are the monetary wage increases we provide when they graduate. 

PARÉ: When the students graduate and come to work full time, C.M. Richey has a lot of time, money and effort invested in them. How do you retain these valuable employees?

MORRELL: C.M. Richey has three core values: show up for work every day, work hard and treat others how you want to be treated. We are not at 100% all of the time, but those are definitely our core values. Our people stay with us because they don’t feel like they are being taken advantage of and they know that everyone is putting in equal effort. People don’t feel like they are putting in twice as much work as the guy standing next to them. It saves us a lot on infighting.

One motto that has worked very well for us is, “Treat your customers like gold, and treat your employees like customers.” We have a completely open-door management philosophy. Sometimes it backfires because people don’t have filters, but it’s one of our best company attributes in terms of maintaining workers. They know they can come in and talk about whatever is on their minds or whatever is bothering them. As large as we have become, we still make sure everyone is treated like an individual.

Don’t get me wrong, a lot of it has to do with the fact that we are very competitive with wages and have a good benefits package. We offer a lot of overtime and safe working conditions. But ultimately, it all comes back to our culture and how we treat our people. We know that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Our people feel like they are treated like family, not just employees.

As a senior consultant with FMI, Tyler leverages his construction experience, coupled with his advanced knowledge of business mechanics, to help clients mitigate risks and improve profitability. His consulting work focuses on linking work acquisition processes and project execution best practices in support of competitive strategy.

Prior to joining FMI, Tyler worked for multiple mid-sized general contractors in the Southeast. His experience in the industry includes both estimating and project management roles in commercial and industrial markets.

Tyler holds a master of business administration with concentrations in finance and real estate from the University of Florida. He also has a master of science in management and a bachelor of science in building construction from the University of Florida. In addition, Tyler is a LEED accredited professional.