Bridging the talent gap

Local executives discuss the “graying” of their workforce & the education of new hires

Ken Cochran Alex Swenson Survey Team

Call it the graying of a workforce or a “talent gap,” but many businesses – both locally and nationally – are dealing with an age issue. Their employee base is either heavily invested in the 45-year and older segment or they’ve seen a recent influx of young, schooled-but-without-job-experience hires as they’ve scurried to replace a significant percentage of recent retirees.

Executives at MacKay Sposito, Thompson Metal Fab and the Northwest Line Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee (JATC) recently shared their thoughts on this topic that spans a variety of industries.

Damon WebsterAs a civil engineering firm with roots in Vancouver that predate 1974, MacKay Sposito is largely comprised of engineers, construction managers and land surveyors – the last two of which, said Damon Webster, director of corporate stewardship, account for the majority of their baby boomers and older generation employees.

The Northwest Line JATC is the training arm for the Northwest Chapter of NECA (National Electrical Contractors Association) and IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) Locals 125, 659, 77 and 483 – representing journeyman lineman and journeyman power line tree trimmers. Mike Kiessling, training director, shared that linemen typically retire between 55 to 62 years of age, but that average has been skewed with 68-year-old linemen being more common.

Thompson Metal Fab’s aging workgroup appeared to inadvertently correct itself a few years ago, according to CEO John Ruddi.

“The recession forced a lot of people into early retirement,” said Ruddi. “What that ended up doing was really create a talent gap and I think a lot of shops are seeing that. I’ve talked to a lot of other people in the industry and they’re seeing that. Now [we have] great younger individuals, but fewer older individuals to pass on the talent base.”

Webster cited that the recession may have caused the construction sector to be less appealing from a job security perspective. Meanwhile, the Northwest Line JATC witnessed journeymen delay retirement due to a devastating hit in the stock market.

The challenge now before many companies is recruiting and educating new hires to possess the hands-on wisdom of the more seasoned employees before a mass exodus occurs. With the dizzying array of career options available to high school and college students, that’s not an easy task.

According to Webster, MacKay Sposito has employed several innovative concepts including an engaging blog with posts authored by a different team member each week. They’re active in helping area schools with STEM programs, sponsor surveying and engineering scholarships through Clark College, MSi Veterans Support Council and OIT (Oregon Institute of Technology) and participate at local high school career days. In the past they’ve posted internships for high school and college students and have staff currently teaching portions of course curriculum at Clark College.

What has seemed to generate considerable excitement and conversation at McKay Sposito were two recent Business After School open houses – one held for high school students and the other held during National Engineers Week for the Clark College Alumni Association. In both cases, either high school or college students made their way around informal stations designed to educate attendees about the many job duties of an engineer, construction manager and land surveyor, as well as job opportunities available and skill sets needed for that career path.

Thmpson Metal Fab also worked with Clark College to bring their apprenticeship program in-house and they’ve seen great success with that change in direction. According to Ruddi, they’ve even added life skills instruction including health and personal finance for younger workers who, now that they’re on a successful career path, can make a better connection. Without a seniority clause, Thompson is able to reward hard workers for a job well done. To further address individual growth and the priority of job safety, a military-inspired approach is being implemented this year.

“That’s how we’re addressing gaining that experience quotient that you need to have,” Ruddi said. “Sometimes you just have to live it, to work through it. [We] put them in teams – older more experienced workers balanced with little to mid-level [experienced employees with] 10 to 12 employees on a team.”

Kiessling is a huge proponent of apprentice programs being the answer to passing work experience on while there’s so much wisdom to be gleaned, but he said there’s a fine balance when considering their journeyman-to-apprentice ratio must be maintained at one-to-one and, since the Northwest was the last to go into the recession, signs seem to indicate it’s been slower coming out. Evidence of economic revival is being seen with Northwest Line JATC putting on 129 apprentices in 2014 as compared to just 15 in 2013.

At Mackay Sposito, Webster believes the refreshing of their talent pool will come from a combination of endeavors. For example, in addition to engaging with area schools, which has produced positive results, the company is looking to emerging technology – such as the use of drones for land surveying –within the engineering field to appeal to a younger generation.

Approaching the issue of a talent gap, Kiessling ultimately takes a pragmatic tone.

“You’re going lose that experience and it’ll fall more on the training,” he said. “There’s going to be a transition period. I don’t know if it’ll get shored up. It’ll evolve.”

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