Where Are the Workers?

Hiring and Retaining Workers During COVID-19

David C Phillips / February 2021

The COVID-19 crisis has been with us much longer than anyone originally anticipated. We’re almost into the second year. It has had considerable effects on the labor situation—already far from easy in many parts of the country.

The vectors affecting the workforce in the construction industry, particularly taking on new personnel, are quite complex. In general, there are fewer construction projects going on. There is some personnel attrition due to the effects of COVID-19 on the employees themselves or their families or just the circumstances. Many people from other industries and trades have lost their jobs, and some of them turn to the construction industry for work. Some construction companies have been forced to hire fewer people or downsize.
But rather than simply credit the broad (and dire) generalities that are repeated and broadcast in the news, we turned to the contractor members of the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry and asked them to share their experiences with personnel matters during the pandemic so that we could get an idea of how things really stand and what actions they are taking to cope.

Interviewing, Onboarding & Training
How has the pandemic changed the employment picture? We asked contractors how the pandemic has changed the approach to the various steps in finding and retaining workers for companies and their projects in the areas of recruiting, interviewing, hiring, onboarding, training and retaining.
Mat Boden, operations manager at Marek Brothers Systems, Inc., in San Antonio, Texas, says, “Our approach to recruiting has remained largely unchanged. We have seen an increase in people with no previous construction experience inquiring about opportunities. We attribute this to construction’s classification as an essential business.”
“Interviewing has become more difficult due to guidelines on face-to-face contact,” Boden continues. “We have been conducting remote interviews and requiring electronic applications to limit potential exposure, but these present their own challenges with technology and people’s access to devices.”
On the subject of hiring, he says, “We are always looking for good people to add to our workforce, so our hiring practices have been consistent.
“The process of onboarding new hires has changed in that we use technology to do the majority of the initial paperwork remotely. However, our field staff cannot work remotely, so it is important to establish safe working habits while onboarding new workers.”
On the subject of training, Boden says, “We continue to conduct safety training for our field staff. The training class sizes have been minimized to ensure proper social distancing for a safe environment. We have found that the smaller classes result in greater results in retention of the information being presented. We will likely continue the smaller class sizes going forward.”
As far as retaining employees is concerned, he says, “We have had some employees’ ability to go to work affected by circumstances where childcare was needed due to a shutdown of school facilities. For the most part, we have been able to retain our workforce.”
Christina Verderame, consultant for Ess & Vee Acoustical Contractors, Inc. in Long Island, N.Y., notes the differences they have experienced since the onset of the pandemic: “Interviews have been on Zoom, which is not as effective as in person. Connection issues make it difficult sometimes as it disrupts the flow of the interview. With face-to-face interviews, it is much easier to assess body language and other cues.”
As far as hiring is concerned, she says, “A lot of people are looking for jobs and it’s harder to weed out potential candidates. Even on LinkedIn, where you can set mandatory parameters for the position, we have people applying for positions who are not qualified.”
“As for training, we’ve had to do more online for employees, which depends for its success on the employees’ familiarity with technology and time management.”
Victor Roach, president of Western Partitions, Inc. in Oregon, says, “Our business is down around 15% this year, so recruiting, interviewing, hiring and onboarding haven’t been major concerns. Of course, there is always something. We wear masks; we have put up some plastic shields in a few locations; we use phone and email and Zoom, much the same as before.”
“Training of newer employees has mostly carried on as before,” he continues. “You can’t train very well by email, phone or an occasional Zoom meeting. These people have to be next to their trainer for most of the day. So other than wearing masks and social distancing, it has mostly carried on as normal.”
Roger Olson, president, treasurer and CEO of Sig Olson & Sons, Plastering, Inc. in Minnesota, reports no real changes in recruiting, interviewing or hiring. When it comes to onboarding, he says, “Extra training is required in the COVID-19 portion of our safety plan.” And for the training overall, he adds, “Obviously there have been topics added this year that mostly didn’t apply in previous years. We added a COVID-19 response plan as required.”
As far as workforce retention is concerned, Olson says, “In an effort to reduce exposure, we have tried to limit our workload in order to accommodate a stable-sized crew. That hasn’t worked perfectly; however, we did manage to keep a core group very busy and added crew temporarily in very small, easy-to-manage increments.”
Adam Barbee, estimator/project manager at Daley’s Drywall in Campbell, Calif., reports changes in interviews and training. “In our interviews we have adapted to the times to make sure we comply fully with all requirements,” he says. “As a company, we go above and beyond to make sure we stay strictly in line with the rules/guidelines. It’s our highest priority during the interview process to make the interviewee feel fully comfortable. We provide a large open space, distance, sanitary wipes and, most importantly, make sure they are comfortable.
“We have fully trained our employees through the pandemic, as well as maintaining up-to-date information as things have evolved. Our safety department has developed a complete written company protocol specifically to cover the pandemic. It handles all aspects of our hiring process, including onboarding, training and retaining. Our goal is to make the ‘not so normal’ feel normal in these strange times. This takes a lot of work, and its maintenance needs attention every single day.”
Jerry Reicks Jr., president and CEO of Tri-State Drywall in Iowa, describes their situation: “For us at Tri-State Drywall, we have had an abundance of new applications. The problem is that many are from food or beverage services or other non-construction occupations, most without any practical experience. We can tell that the Texas market has been crushed by oil prices and COVID-19 as the bulk of experienced manpower that is contacting us is from there. Our market too has felt this impact with 45% less backlog than at this time last year. Margins have plummeted. Our processes are still in place for hiring, safety training and jobsite working, albeit refined to meet CDC guidelines. But for the most part, it’s all still in person.”
“We have been able to maintain our status quo for the most part,” says Stan Kasper, president of The Rockwell Group in Illinois. “We recently filled a position for one of our offices with a recruit who was relocating to that area. The timing was good, and our new team-member is fitting in well.”
“In our recent personnel hire,” explains Kasper, “We held several phone interviews and then had two candidates come into our office for safe in-person interviews. We felt it was critical to have the face-to-face meeting prior to offering someone the position. Safety is paramount, but we had to be sure the finalist would fit into our culture.”
Scott Bleich, principal of Heartland in Iowa, says, “We haven’t had any turnover, nor have we hired during this pandemic. We have stayed much the same throughout, due to our backlog. Now, if you ask me these questions going into second quarter of 2022, I will probably have different answers.”
Bill Fritz, president of Mission Interiors Contracting, LLC in Houston, Texas, reports no changes in recruiting, interviewing, training (other than the addition of mandatory COVID-19 training) or onboarding. “We have retained current workers by aggressive bidding with low margins and not cutting wages,” he adds.
Dave DeHorn, chief estimator at Brady Company/Los Angeles, Inc., in California, says, “We do not do much recruiting, interviewing, hiring, onboarding or training within the office. We have a union field so hiring takes place all of the time on a particular site. The hiring steps in the field have not changed drastically.”
Gilly Turgeon, president of Green Mountain Drywall in Colorado, says, “Recruiting had been tough before the virus hit …. If we do have any interviews, it’s mostly onsite, following appropriate protocol of course. I believe we have hired one new staff member in the past three years; otherwise, we subcontract all our other work. Retaining our workers includes year-end bonuses and pay raises, and they are all becoming older …”

Career Change?
The pandemic has left many people in all sectors without jobs. We asked if some of those affected are now ripe for a career in construction.
Boden says, “We have seen an increase in applications from people with no previous construction experience, due to other industries being closed down.”
Verderame says, “Yes, I’ve had a few applicants coming from other industries who are now self-described as passionate about construction and eager to learn. Being a Phase I activity, a lot of people are drawn to sectors that remained open during the earlier phases. This is difficult as construction is so highly specialized, and we really need people who are experienced in the field.”
Barbee says, “We have found more people looking for jobs following the shifting and rearranging of the economy because of the pandemic. Construction has been deemed essential here, opening the door for individuals who would never have considered a career change into construction until the COVID-19 card was dealt.”
But it’s not the case everywhere.
Olson in Minnesota, Kasper in Illinois, Fritz in Houston, Roach in Oregon, and Turgeon in Vermont all note that they have not encountered this phenomenon. Kasper adds, “We have always looked for the best person regardless of experience. A great attitude for learning and wanting to succeed is critically more important than having the knowledge of our industry. You can teach construction more easily than attitude.”

All for One
Kasper shared successful actions initiated to cope with the pandemic: “When the pandemic hit, we had an internal task force of eight executive-level people who met three times a week to pass along information and ideas as to how we needed to deal with this issue. Though our regular meetings have discontinued, we continue to learn and evolve, with safety as our top priority and workplace efficiency our second.”
Fritz feels that “the direction that our government took in the beginning has done real harm to our economy. … Why were we not working with every country on the planet, both medically and financially, to find a solution? The answer is leadership. If we want to succeed in the 21st century, we need to place more importance on who we want to lead this country as part of a global society.”
Olson sees a bright future: “It is my hope that the strange events of 2020 are mostly limited to 2020. I think we will carry forward with a renewed awareness of our social norms and how we are affected so that we will become a healthier society in the future.”
“The storm is here now,” says Barbee, “So let’s do our best to work through it. Some of us have bigger ships than others—we need to be there for all, and we will get through this together.”

David C Phillips, a freelance writer and photographer, is an original founding partner at Words & Images.