Company support inspired Alfredo Lara to continue working at Panhandle Concrete Products and attain his Master Precaster designation.
By Sara Geer
If someone told Alfredo Lara while in college that he was going to work at a precast concrete plant as a quality control technician, he would have thought they had gone mad. However, life has a funny way of changing a person’s plans.
“In college, I got a bachelor’s degree in construction management and my whole thought process in school was, ‘I’ll do any type of construction except for concrete,’” Lara said. “I always thought I would be building houses or doing industrial construction.”
After graduation, Lara applied for an industrial job in Tucson, Ariz. The job fell through, however, when a project bid was not contracted, causing the company to stop hiring. He found temporary work at the Nebraska Department of Roads inspecting and patching roads, which was his segue to working with concrete.
“I then got laid off in December, but at the same time Panhandle Concrete Products was hiring,” he said. “So, I started off as a laborer just to get some money in my pocket, but was thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll probably stay three months and then see what happens.’”
Right when he was contemplating turning in his two-week notice, QC and Production Manager Andy Hayward offered him a crew leader’s position. Lara talked with his family and decided to stay. After 11 months, he became Panhandle’s new QC technician. During the first couple years on the job, his doubts about working at Panhandle Concrete returned.
“This was a hard transition for me,” he said. “The first 2 to 3 years were tough and there were times where I felt like this wasn’t for me. But anytime I felt that way, management would remind me, ‘Hey, no one is perfect, and this is not an easy job.’”
The job’s difficulty is actually what inspired him to take Production and Quality School Level I in 2015. Hayward suggested the course would help him understand his job better and answer the many questions he had.
“We try to be as supportive as we can to our employees,” Hayward said. “Sometimes they might be faced with obstacles or a tough job that they haven’t experienced yet, so it’s important to keep them from getting too wound up and keep them focused on the task at hand. I think a lot of that can be accomplished through education like the Master Precaster program.
“It’s important to offer these opportunities and see them succeed as employees, so they can transition that to the rest of their lives outside of work as well.”
Lara said he learned a lot from PQS I, specifically about problems he thought were unique to Panhandle, such as finding reliable workers and concrete testing. Those issues, he found, are common throughout the entire industry. After finishing the first course, that taste of knowledge fueled his desire to take more classes.
Although classes like PQS II – QA/QC and PQS II – Technical were very valuable in teaching him the math, mechanics and reasoning behind being a QC technician, the PQS III – Leadership course was his favorite. Lara said it helped him be a better leader in the company by increasing his confidence in his abilities to communicate well with others and problem solve. These are both important aspects of his job since he refers himself as the “middle man” situated between management and the production staff.
“I’m trying to help everyone and get the job done right because essentially my initials are on each approved product,” Lara said. “Andy is always telling me, ‘Right now, you are the face of the company because you are the one getting your name out there.’ I try to help the staff understand why our bosses want it this way and why we must meet these standards.
“It’s hard sometimes for the employer to communicate that to them, so that’s my job.”
Hayward said that since Lara has gone through the Master Precaster program, he has seen a positive shift in the overall morale of other employees. He encourages each employee to take what they learned from a class and put it to use in their job. The company tries to implement new ideas when it can because there is always more than one way to do most jobs.
“The older I get, the more I see the importance of continuing education because if you get too complacent in what you are doing, you’ll lose some desire for your job,” Hayward said. “You need to make changes to keep up or keep ahead and education is the best way to keep people informed, improving themselves and their company.”
Lara has appreciated the support he has received from the entire company. He was especially grateful that management made the decision to stop production for a day to bus the entire workforce to The Precast Show in Denver to attend his graduation and watch him receive the symbolic gold hardhat as Panhandle Concrete’s first Master Precaster. Since then, Andy’s brother Chris Hayward has completed the program, while another employee is scheduled to graduate in 2020.
“A couple years ago, we weren’t doing a lot of continuing education, but now we’re doing it more and more as time goes on,” Hayward said. “It’s something that I encourage all companies to take part of when they can. It may not be too feasible right away for some, but when you get the chance, it’s good to get your employees involved because it will benefit you and your plant.”
In addition, a company that can provide the encouragement Panhandle Concrete has shown Lara throughout his career may likely change an employee’s mind about leaving.
“I honestly would not have stayed without the company’s support in me,” Lara said. “They believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself because when a QC manager makes a mistake, it can look very bad. When I catch a mistake too late, I own up to the mistake and management often gives me more encouragement.
“And now that I’ve increased my knowledge and confidence in my job, I pass that same encouragement along to my coworkers to help them as well.”
Sara Geer is NPCA’s communication manager, and is managing editor of Precast Inc.