Dredging & Marine Construction

Employee Recruitment, Retention Focus Of WEDA Webinar

How to recruit and retain employees was the topic of a Western Dredging Association (WEDA) webinar titled “Dredging For Talent” January 20.

Panelists Laurie Boyan from Weeks Construction, Rebecca Gardner of Anchor QEA LLC and Don Hayes of The Dredging Professor LLC were panelists along with moderator Janelle Pogodzinski, vice president of human capital for J.F. Brennan Company.

Panelists noted it was taking longer to fill some positions at their companies.

Gardner said Anchor QEA typically hires two types of employees. Recent graduates can be on-boarded within 60 days, typically, she said, but when hiring for mid-level or more experienced positions, “It’s very, very challenging,” she said. Often, she said, it takes six months or more.

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“At all levels people want to have opportunities to work on projects that align with their values, and they want to be flexible about it,” she said. “They want to have career growth. They kind of want everything, and it’s a little challenging sometimes to provide all of that.”

Boyan spoke about the higher rates of unemployment and resignations making for a challenging hiring environment but said that it also can provide opportunities for companies geared to provide what employees want.

“People are looking for purposeful work, which I think can be an opportunity for us,” she said.

Dredging companies have traditionally competed with construction companies for hiring talented employees, Pogodzinski said. She asked if other fields should now also be seen as competitors for those potential hires.

“I think everybody’s our competitor,” Boyan said.

She noted that employees want a good work/life balance and may choose opportunities they find that provide that, even if the pay isn’t as high. More and more, she said, competitors include warehousing companies, such as Amazon.

Gardner said she has also seen employees leaving for clients, for the Corps of Engineers, for regulators and, in some cases, leaving the industry altogether. They have various reasons.

“Sometimes it’s a perceived salary or benefit, total compensation approach,” she said. “Sometimes it’s they just don’t want to travel any more or want a 9 to 5 job.”

Even potential new hires are thinking more about long-term career goals, Gardner said. They ask questions like, “What’s my career development path? How are you going to train me to move up?” she said.

Pogodzinski asked if any of the companies are using a formalized career mapping program to try to retain talent.

Boyan said that might be a long-term plan for a few years down the road but is currently more informal.

“It is something we can talk to with our candidates, but I do think it’s something that’s going to continue to elevate in the level of importance,” she said.

Focus On The Future

In past years, Boyan said, job seekers were more interested in looking at a company’s medical benefits and compensation packages. “The demand today is ‘Where am I going and how am I going to be moving successfully through the organization?’ she said.

Gardner said her organization is helping to address these needs by providing more formalized mentoring and training, talking more about the “total employee experience.”

“We’re trying to figure it out, but we do think that getting more formal and very deliberate in the training is going to be necessary,” she said.

Hayes talked about what he is hearing from students. Although Hayes is currently an independent consultant, he spent 27 years in academia, including time as a department chair and associate dean. In those positions he interviewed about 400 students graduating and taking a position in the workforce. While students used to be focused mostly on how much money they would be making in a position and where that position is located, that is no longer the case, he said.

“I was really struck by how much more altruistic they are than I ever was,” he said. “They were looking to do something they could feel good about.  … They even take lower salaries to do that.”

Many students are already involved in charity work and want employers who are willing to let them take time to continue that support, he said. 

They also ask questions about a potential employer’s philanthropy and think about how that employer’s mission statement fits with their own personal goals. “They’re thinking much better about the bigger picture,” Hayes said.

Need For Flexibility

Pogodzinski asked how companies were looking to meet potential employees’ requests for flexible work schedules.

Boyan said although Weeks Construction has a historical viewpoint when it comes to office workers being in the office from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., “clearly the pandemic has provided a shift that work can be completed” outside the traditional office setting. Where the company has had the right opportunities, such as contributors who have shown they can be successful, hybrid environments that include potential flexibility in work-from-home situations can be considered, she said.

Gardner said with her firm there have been a mixture of work situations, and the company’s ability to be flexible “really depends on the assignment.” Construction can often include very long hours and remote assignments. In retaining employees, she said, “You’ve got to check in with your employees and make sure they’re at a stage in their life where they can handle it.” She said the company tells its employees, “When you need time off, we don’t want you to burn out, but let’s plan it.”

Additionally, she said, the company tries to rotate which employees are in the field as much as possible, especially when conditions are especially harsh.

“We take it person by person and assignment by assignment,” she said.

Use Of Technology

Hayes said he thinks a challenge to employers will be learning how to communicate using electronic means, something with which new graduates are very savvy, while also helping employees to feel engaged.

“How do you really make them feel part of that team and an important part of the organization and be a contributor?” Hayes asked. “I think that’s a real challenge.”

With increased use of technology, it is also important for employers to be trained in noticing signs of dissatisfaction and burnout early on, Boyan said.

Gardner said that has become especially challenging during the past two years because of the pandemic. “There are no informal lunches or coffees where you can really see how someone is doing, especially when they bring up non-work-related topics,” she said. “We need to find a way to get back to doing that. I feel like we’re really efficient in communications to get the job done, but we’re losing that human touch, and I think that leads to more attrition in staff because we’re not as connected.”

Boyan said her company is looking at streamlining processes and minimizing obstacles that exist for employees to improve retention. Additionally, she said, these days the top priority media sources are both online: LinkedIn and Indeed.

Gardner said her company uses the same resources but is also looking at how to use them more effectively. For example, she said, LinkedIn is now being used not just for job postings but also to educate current and potential employees about the organization, giving more of a sense of the company’s identity. Human resources and marketing teams both work together in using the platform, she said. Meanwhile, job fairs, internships and an annual scholarship program also help foster connections, she said.

Workforce Planning

Hayes said while students say they want to continue using websites like LinkedIn both to find jobs and showcase their expertise, his experience showed that internships were one of the most valuable tools for both students and employers. Students often need a job while in school, even if that is just five or 10 hours a week, so they are looking for paid internships and generally not considering unpaid ones, he said. However, he said, those interns often develop a loyalty to a company and go on to work full-time for it for years after graduation.

Initially, employers often thought making these connections was more of a charitable effort toward the college or university involved, but instead they came out with tangible benefits. “I think what surprised employers in almost all cases were students were able to ‘earn their keep,’” he said.

Hayes said companies that want to have their pick of a university’s top talent need to think about getting involved early in a student’s academic career, potentially as early as their freshman year. Besides internships, opportunities for potential employers and students to get to know each other better could involve having company representatives to teach a class on campus each semester, speak at student society meetings or offer student tours and bring in lunch.

He added that these opportunities are also useful when employers are interested in improving their recruitment of underrepresented minorities.

High schools do not always do a good job in guiding students toward a skilled trade or a four-year degree program as they don’t always know the needs of the workforce, Hayes said. Boyan agreed, adding that developing a relationship with vocational schools can help both in developing a curriculum and familiarizing students with workforce needs and opportunities.

Pogodzinski said those connections can sometimes begin even earlier. Her company is part of a group of construction companies partnering with a local boys and girls club. They have worked together to plan events such as a “Girls In Construction” day focusing on middle school girls.

Importance Of Connectivity

Pogodzinski said it is important that employers and employees each understand the other’s needs. “What work/life balance is changes depending on where we are in our lives,” she said.

Employers have to work to be more engaged, Boyan said. That can be a challenge, especially with remote employees, she said, but it’s important. Additionally, she said, employees want choices, so communication needs to include educating employees about what opportunities exist so they can choose which ones they want to participate in.

Hayes said potential new hires coming right out of college will likely need a lot more mentoring and guidance, “but they want to be part of the team, even if they’re not in the office every day to learn from others.”

In the end, Gardner said, employers have to realize there has been a generational shift and react accordingly if they want to recruit and retain talent. While previous generations often tended to think of new hires needing to “pay their dues,” she said, she thinks the new generation coming up has a “You can do anything” mindset, and employers will need to refocus to fit employees’ emerging needs if they want to capitalize on their talents.