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5 Ways to Build an Elite Blue-Collar Workforce: Focus on Lifelong Learning, Not Just Skills

The HR leader of a Midwest design-build construction firm offers practical advice on creating a learning-based culture that improves both recruiting and retention.

Three construction workers in hard hats talking to each other.

After 10 years in the architecture, engineering and construction industry, I nearly gave up trying to find quality carpenters and laborers who would stay for more than 30 days.

Our company would spend thousands on online ads and days each year at career fairs for candidates who wouldn't show up for interviews. If they did show up, they often wouldn't pass the background check or drug test. And even if they made it through all that, they'd quit or just stop showing up after 30 days.

Sound familiar to my fellow HR executives—especially those in construction or other skilled-trade sectors?

I had to pivot and reimagine what a successful construction company's workforce would look like.

Too many HR leaders in the trade industries look almost exclusively at technical skills when hiring. So, we decided to focus on something other than how well job candidates could swing a hammer and dig a hole. We decided to focus on three simple factors in recruitment—people who are humble, hungry and hardworking. Once we shifted who we were looking for, we then changed our focus on how we attracted them and what we did with them once we got them in the door.

Focusing on nontechnical factors will help you build an elite skilled-trade workforce that is committed to lifelong learning. Here are five ways that HR leaders can create a culture for trade workers to grow:

1. Search for the humble, hungry and hardworking.

These are factors we can't teach. I can't teach coachability, work ethic, or a hunger for growth and progression. We can't change the heart or develop grit. But we can teach you to build and how to operate equipment.

We used to have an interview score sheet that was based on nine technical categories and safety. We threw it away and started from scratch. Now, 50 percent of the score is based on the 3 H's—humble, hungry and hardworking—while 25 percent is on technical skills, and 25 percent is on safety and quality commitment.

How do you determine if someone has those qualities? Listen for their stories.

If someone says, "I built that building," or "I successfully constructed XYZ," where is the "we"? No one builds a building alone. Ask them to rate themselves: "How would you rate yourself on a scale from 1 to 10 as a master in your trade?" If they rate themselves a 10 with just a couple years of experience, they probably are not very humble.

Ask them why they want to attain this new job with your company. If the answer is something like, "I'm just looking for a new place to land" or "I'm looking for something steady," they probably aren't very hungry for growth. Maybe that is part of the truth, but hopefully not the whole truth. Hopefully, there's something else inside this person that wants growth.

Think about questions that help you dig into these three critical character traits, and ask those questions after you've asked all the technical questions. You may be amazed how many people checked the 10/10 box on skill whom you may have hired if you hadn't asked questions about the 3 H's.

2. Make learning part of the fabric of your company.

The most energizing people to work with are those who don't know everything yet are eager to learn more. Find them and grow them. Starting with your CEO, create a culture that promotes lifelong learning.

At our company, we require every team member to dedicate eight hours a year to learning a new skill. It can be directly in their trade or an entirely new skill. Don't just talk about it—host the classes, get onsite, and learn and talk about it in your safety meetings. Ask the question every morning in your site meeting: "What did you learn yesterday?" When there is an injury or an accident, remove the personal information and share the lessons learned with the rest of the company.   

3. Embed learning into your culture—for every role and at every age.

Learning can't happen exclusively on a webinar, in a classroom, in a book or on a jobsite. You must have all of them. Trade workers tend to learn with their hands, so get them up and moving. Find a teacher or onsite mentor who is passionate about learning and wants to help others grow. Take time to invite in workers of all ages and ask them how they learn and what they want to know.

A one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work for all adult learners. While the 18-year-old employee may want training on tools and safety, the 55-year-old may want training on surveying equipment, layout tools or the best new practices for concrete finishing. Likewise, adults who are making career changes need to feel excited about learning alongside 18-year-olds, not belittled.

Ensure that your learning culture celebrates and supports career changes or you'll deter people from making a career shift. And don't passive aggressively talk about this subject—call out the elephant in the room by clearly and proactively addressing the topic.

4. Reimagine your new pipeline to give energy to your current workforce.

Rethink where you can find your workforce. Most blue-collar workers are already working. Their jobs never slowed down during the pandemic, and they aren't on LinkedIn. Some of the most-hungry workers we've found are those who want a complete career change. They're leaving aviation, manufacturing and civil work, and they are wanting to learn a new craft.

When your current experts have an opportunity to train and develop someone alongside them, those experts feel more empowered and feel they have a stronger purpose to help others grow. Consider compensation increases or spot bonuses for those who take learning seriously for the next generation of the workforce.

5. Create clear career paths.

If you go to college and graduate with a formal education degree, you know you'll be a teacher. With time and additional education, you could become a school principal or district administrator, which come with pay raises and recognition.

In the same way, creating clear career paths in your trade industry is critical for attracting, retaining and growing strong leaders who have little to no formal training.

College is attractive to so many young people because they can clearly see that A + B = C. Create that internally by clearly showing how one can grow from an entry-level individual to a top director in your organization by being committed to lifelong learning and a hunger for growth. Some of our best leaders have come through the trades, become masters in their trade and learned how to be great people leaders with on-the-job training, classroom training and professional development.

Formal college career paths aren't for everyone. And while nearly 30 percent of our workforce is college educated, 70 percent have learned through hands-on training on jobsites. HR leaders who are struggling to find and retain skilled trade workers will need to think differently about who they're looking for and what they do with them once they find them. Most of all, don't give up. These are trades that technology will never fully replace. We'll have to continue to grow, stretch and reimagine how we attract, retain and engage our workforce.


Whitney Proctor, SHRM-SCP, is the people operations leader at Hutton, a Kansas-based design-build construction firm.


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