Arizona contractor fights industry’s decline in skilled workers by starting training and promotion program to keep employees
Thanks to a looming workforce shortage — particularly for skilled laborers — it’s difficult for contractors to find quality employees. At Specialized Services Company (SSC) in Phoenix, Arizona, in fact, the labor shortage is bad enough that it’s crimping opportunities for growth.
Why? Because management is reluctant to invest in costly new machinery when they have a hard time finding employees to run the specialized trenchless-excavation equipment.
“The work is there,” says Michelle Walker, vice president of finance and administration. “We just need more manpower to do it.”
To remedy the situation, SSC is trying to attract employees by creating well-defined training protocols and career paths for its employees. The program includes clearly delineated salary levels for various jobs, which gives employees more incentive to advance, says Marcia Veidmark, the majority owner and president of the company. In addition, the company is focused on reinvesting increased earnings into better pay and benefits for employees.
Finding employees that can competently operate complex machinery such as horizontal boring machines is difficult. First of all, it takes a long time to learn all the nuances of running these sophisticated machines. Secondly, the work is performed in a pit, which makes some people feel a bit uncomfortable, Veidmark says.
In fact, the challenges associated with finding boring-machine workers influenced SSC’s decision as it considered what complementary markets it could expand into during the early 2000s. In the end, management opted for air-excavation. One of the main reasons: The vacuum trucks are simpler to operate and work above ground, she notes. “That made this particular division of the company much more scalable for growth,” she explains, pointing out that air-excavating now generates roughly 50 percent of the company’s revenue, compared to 10 percent when the division was formed in 2003.
The training and career-path program went into effect two years ago, but has been under development for about eight years. Executives figured that increasing levels of employee turnover would subside if employees were given complete clarity right from the start about the requirements of various jobs, as well as the pay levels they could expect, Veidmark says.
To determine if employees are ready to advance, supervisors grade them on a scale of one to five (five being the top mark) in a variety of categories. When an employee receives fives in all the categories, they’re eligible for a promotion and pay increase. “It’s very clear to them what they can achieve and earn,” Veidmark says.
Each time an employee moves up to another job, several more grading criteria are added. When they score fives on those new criteria, as well as maintain fives in the categories from the previous position(s), they’re again eligible for a promotion.
The program has been successful, Veidmark says, pointing to a 50-percent decrease in employee turnover since its implementation. “Employees love it,” she says. “They like to know how they’re doing and what career path lies ahead for them. It’s been a win-win for the company and employees.”