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How to win the war for talent

There are firms that find and retain top talent. What makes those firms different? How can your business become a talent destination? 

   Mike Clancy

For over 30 years, the construction industry has struggled to attract talent, and skilled workforce challenges have been a constant drumbeat. “The war for talent” has started to feel like the Hundred Years’ War. In last year’s construction outlook survey, the AGC found that almost half of respondents tied higher project costs and extended durations to the skilled labor shortage, and almost 60% said this shortage was the biggest challenge to worker health and safety. And despite higher wages and greater opportunity than ever before, finding skilled tradespeople remains incredibly challenging.

Yet there are firms that find and retain top talent. What makes those firms different? How can your business become a talent destination? These are the new existential questions — and having an answer is the difference between just getting by and getting ahead. SMACNA contractors could secure success for the long term by thinking differently about talent. Here are a few tactics that would deliver exceptional results.

New Entrant Recruiting

  1. Recruiting for the trades is a labor AND management responsibility. For too long, many contractors delegated the recruiting of new apprentices to their union partners. However, the most effective firms are those who participate in joint recruiting efforts. Participating in career days at the junior high and high school level, for example, allows for the identification of pre-apprentice recruits that will feel a connection to and loyalty for your company.
  2.  “National signing day.” One tactic that works well is highlighting high school students who decide to enter an apprenticeship program the same way those who enlist in the military or sign a letter of intent to play sports in college are celebrated. My local high school has a “signing day” to spotlight young people who opt for a career in the trades. 
  3. Recruit the whole family. One of the main competitors to the trades is the idea that every young person needs a college education. The fact is, every young person needs a post-secondary education, of which college, military training, and apprenticeships are all options of value. But without an earnest effort to reach parents, our industry will always appear unattractive. 
  4. Look in new places. Programs like Helmets to Hardhats, or those that provide a second chance for nonviolent offenders, provide access to a whole new group of applicants.

Developing and Retaining Your People

  1. Ongoing skills development. Don’t be threatened by your employees wanting to take journeyman upgrade training or foreman training, embrace it. Also, the best firms provide opportunities for training and development beyond those provided by the local union. Professional development and training drive employee engagement and engender loyalty to your firm.
  2. Focus on efficiency. Nobody shows up to work hoping to have an unproductive day. Too often, we sow the seeds of project failures by not providing our people what they need to be successful. In general, worker inefficiency is evidence of poor management. FMI’s studies show that around one-third of the hours spent on the jobsite are inefficient — waiting on tools, material, instructions, or equipment, dealing with rework, or being impacted by other contractors. If you could eliminate inefficiency, it has the same effect as hiring 50% more workers — plus, your employees will have a higher rate of satisfaction and engagement.
  3. Deal with nonperformance quickly. Often, the main demotivator for our skilled tradespeople is seeing those who are less motivated or skilled malinger on for a long time. While acting quickly on non-performance is a managerial hassle, it bears fruit in ensuring that your team is full of people who want to be there, and it also eliminates a source of friction.

These are just a few of the tactics we have seen firms implement to change their labor challenges into a source of advantage. By thinking differently about the way we approach the skilled labor challenge, SMACNA contractors can differentiate themselves as talent destinations and win the war for talent.   


Mike Clancy
Mike Clancy

Mike Clancy is a partner and leader of FMI’s Strategy Practice.