By Aaron Price
A few years ago, we did a gap analysis on our industry, and asked ourselves, “What will the employee pipeline look like in five years?”
Cadillac Asphalt is Michigan’s largest asphalt supplier, with the capacity to produce more than 4 million tons annually. We run seven paving crews with 200 employees during the heart of construction season. However, with the growing economy, potential road funding increases and pending retirements, Cadillac Asphalt predicts we will need to double our size by 2020. Filling the skilled trades employment gap is the biggest issue in the construction and infrastructure industries today, especially in Detroit.
A fully functional paving crew takes years to develop. In order to be ready for the uptick in funding, hiring and training must begin long before the money has worked its way into the system. Several of my construction industry colleagues are holding events to address this issue too during National Apprenticeship Week, which begins Monday.
In the past, our industry has relied on word-of-mouth, website postings, and cherry-picking seasoned employees from competitors. None of these strategies worked really well, and Detroit’s staggering under- and unemployed, approximately 300,000 city residents – kept staring us in the face. We knew we had to do something innovative to reach them, and two years ago, we partnered with Michigan Laborers’ Union and developed a pre-apprenticeship program that benefits them, us and creates a pipeline of opportunities for our future employees. The union helps us by setting up job fairs, and when we find someone with the right attitude, the desire to work, and who will fit in the demanding construction industry and company culture, we hire them into the Future Paving Professionals Program, or FP3.
The intent of the program is to build, grow and strengthen. It is not the intent, now or ever, to replace a current journeyman laborer with a pre-apprentice laborer. Nor does FP3 circumvent the system to pay lower wages; it allows Cadillac Asphalt to carry additional personnel above our normal nine-person paving crew, at our expense, and provides valuable on-the-job training. The program consists of a maximum of 700 hours on-the-job training, and pre-apprentices are assigned to a crew and mentor for training and assessment. Graduates are then enrolled in the union’s apprentice program.
Our analysis told us that it was equally important to invest in our people, as well as our equipment. The entire process has several moving parts, but since kicking off our first class last year, we have brought on about 35 employees, with over 50 percent of those still working for the company, a much higher retention rate than expected originally. These individuals work in a variety of jobs, ranging from our quality control labs and office to paving crews.
The process has taught us a great deal. Our foremen and managers are looking at how well we develop people, and the company is getting better at all levels. With auto insurance rates so high in Detroit, transportation is a challenge, especially for employees whose normal day consists of moving from site to site. However, we were determined that it wasn’t going to be a barrier and have implemented a buddy system where we map out rides. We are even considering purchasing a van in the future to transport employees who need added support.
The bottom line is that we want to put people to work, and we don’t want the obstacles to be the excuse not to do that anymore. People who work, contribute to the Michigan tax base and in the circle of life (and contracting opportunities), some of those tax dollars are spent on roads, which eventually, comes back to us. In addition, we want to give back to a community that has given this company a lot of work over the years. It is our obligation as a company to pay it forward.
We believe that FP3 is already an example of how innovative thinking and a partnership between a union and a contractor can push past major employment challenges and build a pipeline of opportunities. We will continue to closely monitor FP3 to develop and grow a skilled trades workforce that positions us for future success, and improves the lives of the people we hire so they can feel like they’re a part of Detroit’s success too.