January 22, 2018
Focus: Commercial development

In a tight labor market, contractors strategize to meet demand

Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
Jeff Zachau of Zachau Construction in the expanded area his company built at Maine Beer Co. in Freeport.

Earn while you learn

Cianbro opened its state-of-the-art workforce development center, called The Cianbro Institute, in 2017. But the institute was formally established in 2007, and the company had offered formalized training, where students are paid to learn, many years before that. The new facility has traditional classrooms for presentations and hands-on development for many trades, like electrical, rigging, millwright, pipefitting and others, utilizing classroom-size mock-ups to simulate work environment concepts. New hires go through orientation here. Other programs include supervisory, leadership development, project management and safety/wellness.

Cianbro has partnerships with five Maine colleges that recognize the institute's programs, allowing students to earn college credit; and offers 100% tuition reimbursement for outside career-related programs.

The company's simulation yard includes a substation and transmission and distribution lines outfitted with transformers, which can be energized for further advanced training; crane development area; equipment certification opportunities; concrete forming and finishing areas; and other development opportunities. Cianbro's Construction Bootcamp transitions high school career and technical education students, college interns and adults entering the industry.

Landry/French Construction is gearing up for the start of construction of the first phase of Portland Foreside. The major mixed-use development, at the 10-acre former Portland Co. complex at 58 Fore St. in Portland, will include a hotel, marina, residential units and more.

The $200 million project is expected to employ hundreds of workers, with phase one, the marina, expected to break ground in the spring.

How does a Scarborough firm already engaged on other projects around the state win and execute such a major contract? By entering into a partnership with a larger contractor. Gilbane Building Co., in Providence, R.I., is a national construction and facility management company. This is the first time Landry/French has entered into a partnership of this kind, and the express goal is to keep Maine jobs for Maine workers.

The partnership allows the firms to pool resources, says Landry/French Principal Kevin French.

"If we took on that project by ourselves, it would exhaust a lot of our resources," French says. "Pooling resources allows our group to maintain our current clients and also take on new work."

The strategy also allows Landry/French to employ Maine workers on Maine jobs. "Otherwise, larger jobs typically go to out-of-state contractors, and many Maine workers and subcontractors get little out of it," he says.

As the local general contractor, he says, Landry/French can ensure Maine workers and subcontractors get first pick on available work.

"We're overseeing our destiny by getting as much work back into Maine as we can," French says.

Labor crunch

Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
Matthew Tonello, center, Consigli's director of operations in Maine and project executive, discusses the 3-D modeling of the foundation for the new Colby College athletics complex. Also pictured are, left to right, Stephen McPherson, Hannah Brazell, Curtis Thormann, Jack Moran and Evan Glassman. The 3-D modeling enables the workers at the construction sites to be more efficient.

Maine's construction industry faces a couple of major workforce issues. One of them, exemplified above, is about placing Maine workers on big Maine projects that might otherwise go to out-of-state contractors. Then there's the other side of the issue — finding enough workers to fill those jobs. Firms are tackling these challenges in a variety of ways, from partnerships to workforce training to recruiting campaigns.

Experiencing strong growth in a strong economy, contractors are looking to hire in all positions. But the labor pool is tight.

"Like everyone else, we've seen the workforce market tighten in the last 18 to 24 months," says Jeff Zachau, president of Zachau Construction, the Freeport firm that recently completed expansion work at Tyler Technologies and Maine Beer Co.

"We see it more significantly in southern Maine," says Matthew Tonello, who runs Consigli Construction Co.'s Portland office and overseeing construction of the new athletic complex at Colby College. "Something we've seen for a number of years now is that the closer a worker is to Boston, the more financially beneficial it is to make the trip into the Boston market and get the higher wage that's prevalent there, versus being in the Maine market."

Landry/French is trying to entice those people back. French credits his market director, Lisa Stevens, for a campaign that includes a social media video reaching thousands of people in the Boston market and beyond, to attract Maine natives back home. The campaign has recruited six to eight people in two years. French finds that some recruits had been living in Maine but commuting to Boston jobs.

"We're getting seasoned employees with knowledge of larger projects," says French. "They can come back here to where they grew up."

In an effort to recruit workers, Pittsfield-based Cianbro, Maine's largest construction company, launched a campaign, including TV, radio and newspaper ads, primarily in Maine. Its goal is to hire 300 new workers in 2018, adding to a workforce of 4,000.

"The phone's been ringing off the hook," says Pete Vigue, speaking with Mainebiz shortly before he stepped down as Cianbro's CEO to be succeeded by his son, Peter "Andi" Vigue.

'Always looking to add people'

But more workers are needed. Overall, companies see growth as an organic process. Cianbro currently has a specific hiring number, but other firms rely simply on finding people as they come along, regulating their workloads based on available staff.

"We're adequately staffed for what we're doing," Zachau says, adding that the company has seen significant growth in the last five years and expects to hire this year. "However, we're always looking to add additional people."

Various companies agree that their cultural reputation can be one of its best recruiting tools. They count things like work-life balance, safe practices and perks like employee-ownership, wellness programs and matching retirement programs as being good examples of what a great culture looks like.

Zachau characterizes his firm's culture as progressive and family-oriented.

"We value people's lives," Zachau said. "We make a good work-life balance."

In the past year, Zachau started formalizing those ideas by helping employees with goal-setting, as well as growth opportunities through on-the-job and outside training. Chief Operating Officer Drew Wing is overseeing the initiative. Wing has been interviewing employees, including new recruits, about why they're drawn to the company and what keeps them engaged.

"We've taken the information and said, 'These are the things that are important to people, and as we grow, we need to make sure these good things continue.' In some ways, it's as simple as that," Wing says.

What emerged was that employees appreciate the sense of connection they have with each other, leadership, subcontractors and clients. Employees also appreciate a shared work ethic and opportunity to grow.

"We have young, talented people and what we heard was, 'I want to know that I have a place to grow in the company,'" Wing says. "That works well with Jeff's overall philosophy of growth. He doesn't target specific growth numbers, but he wants to keep pace with clients as they have larger and more challenging projects. Simultaneously, that means our employees are able to grow, to have more professional opportunity."

Paid to learn

To that end, earn-while-you-learn models along with tuition-reimbursement for career development opportunities are strategies both to recruit and to advance the careers of existing employees.

Networking with high school and college technical programs is one strategy for reaching potential new hires. For example, Consigli uses the ACE [architecture, construction, engineering] Mentor Program of America curriculum to mentor high school students in design and construction.

"It introduces the skills they need to have, and shows that the STEM curriculum easily transfers to the construction world," says Tonello. "The earlier we can get students interested, the more we can convince those folks to go into engineering or construction management programs when they choose a college."

Consigli also works with colleges, predominantly the University of Maine's construction management program, to do course teaching and participate in college fairs.

"They've been an incredible resource for new hires," says Tonello. "We're trying to show folks coming out of school that there are lot of different career paths, everything from being in the field to being in the office, being a tech guru, building models, creating virtual spaces before we start building it — and everything in between."

And Consigli offers internal training programs.

"It's not unlike any other construction work," Tonello says. "We all have robust training programs to get people into the trades and moving up." Those programs include both internal classes and tuition reimbursement. For example, "One of our key project managers started 15 years ago as a field laborer," he says. "Through his career here, he's gone to college while working in the field, moved up to our project engineering group, and now he's a full-fledged project manager. So if the interest is there, we're here to support hem. We also offer internal classes. It's a fairly robust learning and teaching environment."

Cianbro has used in-house educational efforts for years to develop thousands of construction professionals, conducting sessions ranging from new-hire orientation and craft education to leadership development.

Because of the company's growth and demand for talent, Cianbro in August 2017 opened a new state-of-the-art workforce development center in Pittsfield. Called The Cianbro Institute, it has skilled-trades classrooms for hands-on development. Educational programs and work opportunities are provided to both high school and college students via paid internships. Cianbro also has a 40-acre simulated worksite that offers real-life situational skills for its team, such as how to safely work in an electrical substation, operation of hydraulic and friction cranes, and many other skills. The company also has multiple welding laboratories. The company offers multiple delivery methods for its educational programs; for example, instructors can travel to job sites for face-to-face instruction, and virtual classroom instruction is offered. A four-week industrial construction boot camp introduces new hires to the foundational skills used in the industry. These students immediately join the organization in an earn-while-you-learn model.

"It's a huge expense on our part," Vigue says of the facilities. "But it's very effective at bringing people onboard."

"Individuals like to know that they can grow and challenge themselves in their career," says Mike Bennett, a Cianbro vice president. "The company has made the commitment to develop the team. By providing our team members with the programs to develop their skills, they are able to grow in their careers and the company is able to meet its workforce development objectives. If you give individuals the test, 'Do you want to work for a company that provides you with educational opportunities or not,' I think that's an easy test to pass. So I believe it is valuable to them. I believe it also helps retain and attract people to the organization."

Touting the industry's rewards

Employers say, in general, it's essential to communicate the industry's rewards.

"We're trying to change the industry perception, and show potential hires how rewarding it is," says Tonello. "We're trying to convince folks that, although it's not as easy as an office job, it's much more variable, and every day can be different. You can have a productive feeling at the end of the day that you've accomplished something tangible. You get to see the work product in front of you."

Vigue agrees.

"The general perception of the construction industry is not always positive," he says. "So we try to portray our company as a place where people can have a career in this industry, in multiple different positions, as well as earn a good living and at the same time go home in better condition than when they came to work. That helps people to understand that working in this industry is very positive: A person can earn a good living and at the same time leverage educational opportunities to grow in their careers all while working in a safe environment. In addition, not only can they earn a good wage here and grow professionally, but they can become part of our employee ownership and do very well financially."


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