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Workforce development is critical to maintaining a robust employee group in construction to prepare the young workforce and encourage development in seasoned employees. Mike Bennett, vice president at Cianbro Companies and leader on local and national levels at Associated Builders and Contractors, describes workforce development as: “lifelong learning and involves all of the people.”

Construction is a growth industry, yet it is one facing labor shortages. According to an analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data released by ABC, construction companies will need to hire 430,000 more workers in 2021 than they employed in the prior year.

Given the mental health and substance misuse risks associated with the pressured, physically demanding, and transient nature of construction, supporting workforce development and behavioral health among construction professionals is vital to long-term health, safety, productivity and career longevity.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), construction and manufacturing are among the most at-risk industries for death by suicide and substance misuse occurring at rates four times that of the general population. Occupational risk factors include inconsistent work availability, physical demands and a culture that promotes toughness over talking about problems. Mental health challenges show up in the workplace through absenteeism, presenteeism, accidents and poor morale. Building a culture that supports individual professional growth and personal wellbeing is at the core of a successful workplace.

Construction offers the potential for career growth and longevity, so how best to shape workforce development and attract talented workers? Mike Bennett shares his thoughts on key aspects of effective workforce development programs and future trends in promoting a work culture that supports employee wellbeing.

What is a top priority in developing or maintaining a workforce development program?

Mike Bennett: Organizations need to make a commitment to lifelong learning through educational opportunities, either in-house or through external partnerships. The programs need to be relevant and contain rigor. Next, to be most beneficial, contractors need to ensure the learning can be applied within the work. This is where the real growth happens. It requires engaged supervision and/or mentoring.

Construction leaders needs to engage with youth, educators and school administrators to create bridges between junior high, high school and the industry. Reaching these young groups provides exposure to construction and the trades, which offer wonderful career opportunities. Many examples of successful programs exist in this area for those who are interested.

In addition to apprenticeship programs, there are other successful training models across the United States, including company developed non-registered apprenticeship models. There are also competency-based programs that ensure an individual is fully prepared to enter the workforce safely and successfully. All these programs develop skills, build confidence and prepare individuals to safely enter and prosper in the construction industry.

Lastly, how construction leverages technologies can create interest in the industry and excitement in educational programs. Whether it is the use of virtual reality, machine learning or artificial intelligence, to name a few. The next generation of talent will easily adapt to these technologies and perpetuate this industry into the future.

What makes an effective workforce development program?

Bennett: The most effective programs are those led by an instructor who is respected for their knowledge and experience in the trade. They are passionate about their discipline and genuinely care about the students. They remain engaged and follow up with their students and their supervisors to ensure the learning is being applied on the job. This two-way communication is important for continuous improvement of the program.

How is mental health related to workforce development?

Bennett: A recent CDC report once again listed construction as as one of the most at-risk industries for suicide. We can’t put our heads in the sand and say it doesn’t apply to us. It does apply to us. The demand this industry can place on individuals is significant: it is physically challenging work, can include being away from home and family, and, unfortunately, people continue to get hurt in the line of work, which can result in the need for pain management and risk for opioid misuse. Leaders, including managers and supervisors, have a big responsibility and role to play.

It begins with creating a caring work environment. Leaders need to know their team on an individual basis. It is not comfortable talking about life at work. In fact, for years people were raised to “check your emotions at the door.” This rough-and-tough persona is no longer good enough. It takes real courage to speak up and ask for help. Leaders are the ones who can foster and maintain this type of environment.

Whether one calls it mental fitness, wellbeing or whole health, it is about taking care of the body and mind. At Cianbro, employees use the analogy of a backpack: What’s in your backpack, and how heavy is it with what you have going on at work and in your life? It’s a way of checking in with team members about how they are doing and how much stress they have in their lives on any given day. Stress creates anxiety and anxiety, if not managed effectively, can impact an individual’s performance, such as their ability to focus. If we are not focused on the task at hand in the construction industry, it can lead to workplace accidents. Supervisors who care are those that take the time to know their individual team members, what is in their backpacks and then coach them to manage through the anxiety.

You place a big emphasis on leadership, can you speak to that?

Bennett: Strong leaders need to educate and model behaviors. It is important to be intentional with words and actions, and leaders need to live by them. For example, at Cianbro any new initiative starts with leadership; leaders must demonstrate the importance and walk the walk. As more attention was being drawn to the suicide rate in this industry, Cianbro recognized the need to raise mental health awareness awareness across the company. Without hesitation, Cianbro began an educational campaign with the senior leadership team. As a result, leadership is more aware of the signs of mental illness and know the questions to ask. Establishing an environment where it is okay to have open discussions about mental health is seen as a key responsibility . It starts with all employees. If the team can see that it is okay to openly talking about mental health, it might give others courage to speak up, and hopefully begin to reduce stigma.

Creating positive change in the environment will lead to positive change in overall culture. Again, it begins with leadership, transparency, open communication, and ensuring companies have the necessary support and policies in place to effectively sustain the change.

How is the notion of safety changing in the construction industry?

Bennett: There is a national trend to encompass total human health into what are known today as “traditional occupational safety programs.” ABC is doing some great work in this space. The holistic caring of people by bringing safety and wellness together as one united effort to provide the best possible care to employees. The caring that employers have for their workforce should not stop when the workday ends. It is important to provide workers with tools to manage stress around the clock. By taking the responsibility as leaders to do all we can to care for teams is what will separate the good from the great.

How do companies begin?

Bennet: Set the example. Take time to know individual team members. Start each shift with a stretch-and-flex program. As industrial athletes, construction employees can be prone to soft-tissue injuries. Get loosened up. This is a great opportunity to check in with them, not just for the traditional fit for duty but also mentally. Are they in a good place? If not, maybe leadership needs to modify their work duties today with less risky tasks. Have a brief toolbox talk to encourage employees to have their annual physicals and age-related preventive exams. We all know that early detection is the key. One size does not fit all, so adjust the strategy to the company’s culture.

We all have a backpack on, and the weight can vary from day to day. Be there for each other and begin to make a difference in the industry. ABC’s World Class Safety Management System (STEP) has some wonderful strategies in the making for this total human health initiative. The only way to impact the future of construction is through everyone working together to improve the industry.

During the course of your long career as a leader in construction, what’s changed in the workforce?

Bennett: Peoples’ expectations have changed. People expect the work environment to be safe—expect the company to take care of them in a way that involves not only physical safety but overall wellbeing. This translates directly to physical and mental wellbeing, and the recognition that a trustworthy and supportive workplace provides the foundation for better and safer work. The bedrock of a successful workforce development program—now and in the future—is that it is based on a culture of lifelong learning and caring.


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