Faced with a labor shortage, companies create their own pipeline

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.

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Kevin Grand
Fri, 11/11/2016 - 12:33pm
Mr. Price, It is encouraging to see that while some companies are lamenting the fact that they cannot "find" workers with the required skills, instead of idly standing by and doing nothing but complain, you are reviving an old practice and training the needed workers yourself. Henry Ford did something similar in the early part of the last century which also had encouraging results. Kudos!
Barry Visel
Sat, 11/12/2016 - 10:18am
Great story. Quite an accomplishment for a small company. (Notice, no mention of a tax funded workforce development board being involved...is there a lesson here?).
Chloe Elizabeth
Sat, 11/12/2016 - 5:23pm
Excellent work from you and your company. The initiative to start this program preparing for the future I'm sure is well received within the community, keep it up.
Rich Andrews
Sun, 11/13/2016 - 7:17am
Just in the past week, I have seen two advertisements from companies (different industries) with basically the same approach. Come to work with us, We will teach, train, share, educate what we do, how we do it, etc. These programs are 8 hours a day, five days a week. Then comes graduation # 1 and a chance to go full time with a stepped up income. Then the next level up, etc., more learning, another step up in income, etc. Until now this kind teaching approach has been limited to big companies. Now smaller organizations are finally stepping up to recognize this is a possible solution to finding people, and turning them into valued, loyal employees. Not easy but doable. The transportation issue has been around forever, and will continue. That's an easy one to overcome. I suggested to a company 20 years ago the purchase an old school bus. Paint it and logo it up. Help the folks get to work and home. Soon you have yet another benefit of working for this company. Before you know it you have the numbers of people you need, the training is as you have specified, and your new workforce is thankful for the opportunities - and delivers accordingly. It works! Yes it all costs money, and just like (smaller) companies invest in hardware, the new world order is the recognition they too must invest in finding ways to this business model. It works! ''We need to learn how to make things happen, and methods matter every bit as much as results'' Guess the action point of initiation is finally no longer simply with perspective employees, but with the employers. Finally . . .
Sun, 11/13/2016 - 10:36am
A much better answer than the big government Clinton Obama free college for all we've seen the last decade! And remember this labor shortage next time you hear politicians telling us how many jobs they will create! Or chasing out immigrants who are taking all our jobs, be thankful they are here! The big effort must getting getting the non-participants into the workforce, a much tougher job!
Stephen C Brown
Sun, 11/13/2016 - 3:59pm
So happy to see that companies, unions, and community colleges are partnering to help this education model work. Vocational schools used to fulfill this role, and now Community Colleges are stepping up by communicating more with the business sector.