Change is the name of the game in today’s fast-paced world. But sometimes it can leave longtime employees grappling to play catch-up.
“In our industry, things were done in a certain fashion for a very long time – and still are being done that way to this very day,” said David Espino, director of operations for Locke Solutions in Houston. “But there are always better ways of doing things. In the coming years, there’s going to be a huge jump in using technology to automate things, whether it’s reporting or on the floor. It’s going to be a major change that a lot of folks are going to have to adapt to.”
Helping different mindsets coexist
Older employees tend to operate under a different set of work habits than younger counterparts. For instance, they often place a higher value on being onsite every day for a set number of work hours. They also draw a higher degree of self-identity through their jobs and roles.
These differences can be a source of friction and frustration in the workplace.
At Wieser Concrete Products, headquartered in Maiden Rock, Wis., General Manager Andy Winkler said 43% of the company’s employees fall within the longtime worker category – those in their late 40s or early 50s or who have been with the company 15 to 20 years.
Wieser Concrete recently brought in a speaker to talk to employees about leadership and cooperation and to help both generations be more understanding of each other. If a culture of respect exists within a company, it makes everyone’s job easier.
Keeping up with the times
Today, nearly every aspect of business involves technology: timecards, electronic paychecks, health insurance, 401K statements, electronic driving logs (EDLs) and computerized concrete mixers to name a few.
While technology makes many processes more efficient and immediate, longtime employees often prefer paper documentation and the old way of doing things.
“They struggle a bit more with it,” Winkler said. “They aren’t walking around looking at their smartphones all day.”
Wieser Concrete Products holds training sessions on downloading new apps and how to use them to assist longtime employees.
Jim Pryor, 61, president and owner of Atlas Concrete Products in New Britain, Conn., appreciates the difficulty in adapting to the new technology. He’s been in the precast business for 20 years and has seen many changes.
He joked about attending “YouTube University” to learn 3-D modeling software for a project.
“Knowing where to go to get the answers is the big thing,” Pryor said. “I watch a lot of videos to try to keep current. I also refer to my kids an awful lot. They know the shortcuts and how to do what I need to get done.”
What if longtime employees are unable to adapt or stubbornly resist change?
“Fortunately, it doesn’t happen too often,” Espino said. “Some people want things to stay the same. And it can’t stay the same if your company is growing.”
Working around physical changes
There comes a time when longtime employees can’t handle the physicality of manual labor. No matter how knowledgeable or skilled they are, it becomes too difficult to keep up with the pace and demands of the job.
That’s when savvy employers can employ a variety of solutions to help.
“We focus on trying to utilize their skill sets and repurposing where they are in the company with an equal or better opportunity,” said Nadine Hurd, materials manager for Garden State Precast in Wall, N.J. “That alleviates some of the manual labor pressure on them.”
Garden State employs between 70 and 80 workers. About 10% of them have worked there for 20-plus years and are over age 60.
Garden State supplies items such as floor mats and reading safety glasses to help older employees. The company also uses 3-D models to supplement the complex drawings for detailed and intricate structures.
“It has really helped both younger and older generations visualize what we need to produce,” Hurd said. “This is just another tool we give them to help them with a project.”
When employees have been performing a task one way for 10 to 15 years, muscle memory kicks in and away they go. It’s challenging to adjust to a new process.
“We focus on doing it side-by-side with them,” Hurd said. “We don’t try to institute something new and leave them to figure it out on their own.”
Wieser has a similar approach.
“We try to transition them to different jobs that don’t require working on their knees, climbing or lifting,” Winkler said. “So, we look at the individual and what they can handle and what they can do to stay happy. You need to fit the job to the person.”
Atlas Concrete Products also transfers longtime employees to less strenuous positions within the company. For example, one employee in his 70s specializes in patch work, working at his own pace. Another longtime employee transferred to a forklift operator position and performs special setups on custom jobs.
Pryor advises precast companies to “be patient and cut longtime employees some slack.”
“It took a long time to get your key employees to become key employees, so don’t mess it up now,” he said.
Veteran employees possess historical and industry knowledge that make their contributions invaluable. Losing them can be detrimental, especially given the current labor supply. Showing them how valued they are goes a long way toward keeping longtime employees.
Locke Solutions depends on its longtime employees for recruiting and training.
“They’re heavily involved in that and in our moving forward,” Espino said.
Locke Solutions is 10 years old, and its 100-plus employee workforce ranges in age from 20 to 55. The company is experiencing rapid growth. A year-and-a-half ago, the company had fewer than 50 employees. About 10 employees are experienced, longtime employees.
Locke’s buddy system, which pairs new employees with tenured experts in specialty work such as rebar, fabrication, formwork and patching and finishing, allows new employees to gain skills and knowledge quickly.
Keeping longtime employees engaged in company initiatives rather than passing them over in favor of newer, younger employees goes a long way toward keeping them feeling part of the company rather than being pushed out.
Locke relies upon and asks for their senior employees’ feedback and ideas the company can implement and involves them in expansion or technology projects.
“Sometimes they have innovative technology ideas we hadn’t thought about,” Espino said.
Along with mentoring, Garden State keeps older employees engaged by including them in the safety committee, and having them lead meetings and other projects to let them know their voices are heard and their opinions are not overlooked.
There are other ways to assist longtime employees so they can continue working.
Garden State has used longtime employees as consultants for complex jobs and in some cases, phased retirement.
While Wieser has no formal plan for retaining older employees, it allows some longtime employees to work part time or reduced hours. For example, often drivers opt for a three-days-per-week schedule when they reach retirement age.
Atlas works four 10-hour days, with three days off each week, a schedule that allows longtime employees an extra day off.
“Employees are in the driver’s seat these days, and you have to realize that and figure out how to make the best of that,” Pryor said.
Shari Held is an Indianapolis-based freelance writer who has covered the construction industry for more than 10 years.