Mortenson Creatively Addresses the Labor Crisis and Increasing Diversity in the Workforce

The women of Mortenson Denver Credit: Mortenson

By Elizabeth Erfling, senior project manager, Mortenson

Elizabeth Erfling

The last few years have been bumpy for the construction industry, to put it mildly. Between the supply chain crisis, materials pricing fluctuation and now inflationary headwinds, keeping projects on track has become a major challenge for even the most organized and well-sourced construction firms. The good news is that these challenges are largely temporary.

The real problem that we must address head-on is the growing labor crisis. This issue presents the biggest threat to our industry – and a major threat to our economic growth – not just in the near-term, but over the next decade.

The Associated Builders and Contractors CEO Michael Bellaman sent the message loud and clear in its workforce shortage analysis last year, “The construction industry desperately. needs qualified, skilled craft professionals to build America.”

To answer this call, we need to broaden the pool from which we’re recruiting. And as we look to do this, opportunity lies in key cultural shifts that will attract and retain a more diverse talent pool. If we want good people (no matter their gender or background) to grow long-term, meaningful careers within our companies, we ultimately need to look at how the construction industry can become a more welcoming, adaptive environment where people feel empowered to bring new ideas to the table.

Here at Mortenson, that has meant opening our minds to new ways of working, creating greater flexibility for our team members and promoting allyship – all with the goal of attracting and keeping a diverse workforce for the long term.

Finding Flexibility

As an industry, construction has historically been slow to embrace change – this applies everywhere from adoption of technology to expectations for hours on the jobsite to growing and embracing women and POC leaders. We simply cannot afford rigidity if we want to attract and keep people.

When it comes to job site schedules, for example, the construction industry has typically operated with ultra-early start times and weekend work. That schedule simply won’t work for everyone – particularly for those with caregiving roles, including parents. With industries outside of construction shifting to offer greater flexibility, we must follow suit to compete for talent. At Mortenson, we’ve figured out that one size does not fit all people or all jobs. So, we’re embracing greater flexibility in schedule-making.

Right now, I’m managing the build on Mortenson’s new headquarters. Like myself, the superintendent on our project is also a mother of young children. Together, we identified hours that ensured that we – and our teammates – are able to fulfill both our professional and familial duties. This flexible approach still ensures proper oversight and leaves respective responsibilities unchanged.

Being able to offer a reasonable work/life balance is important for us, but it doesn’t stop with working mothers. Making small adjustments with employee wellbeing in mind benefits the entire team in the long run. In order for us to be able to make these changes, we had to know that we had the support of senior leadership within Mortenson, which brings us to the importance of allyship and advocacy.

Allyship + Advocacy

Without allies in positions of power, it can feel risky to advocate for your needs – especially if you are among the minority at your workplace. I feel fortunate to have leadership who are deeply committed to hearing, supporting and keeping good people. In response to women often being relegated to ‘light’ work on the jobsites, for example, Mortenson created Women’s Skills Nights, expanding access to the essential training women would need to grow in their career. This program has helped nearly a hundred women to build careers with us – and has further empowered women in our company to make an impact.

Drawing on the support and resources of peers can also be essential to keeping people in the job. Our Women’s Resource Group has been vital to me personally. During the group’s meetings, we benefit from the experiences and insights of other team members. For example, a recent conversation with Maja Rosenquist, our senior vice president, provided specific, actionable tips for running job sites while parenting a young family. Her perspective was not only valuable for where I am in my life and career today, but in the longer term as my career continues to grow at Mortenson.

With the insights I gleaned at these meetings, I was able to put together a plan for my own jobsites that would allow us to meet our project objectives without burning our team members out. I went to leadership, presented and advocated for the plan, and it was approved. The culture of allyship and advocacy we are creating has proven essential and valuable time and

Taking the Long View

Every person counts, and that sentiment is all the more important in a historic labor shortage. It costs a lot more to recruit, hire and train someone new than it does to take care of and develop an existing team member. Taking the long view and working to extend the employee lifecycle as long as possible is essential for our industry. For example, Mortenson offers paid eight-week
sabbaticals every five years for team members of any position, recognizing the value in taking a break at different points in your career without the stigma.

Retaining members can also mean an adjusted schedule for a year or two after a parent has a child (which might have seemed anathema to a firm in our industry not that long ago). That wasn’t available to me initially when I had children, so I ended up taking a hiatus. That time was deeply valuable to my family, but I’m not naive about what it cost me in my career progress.
Fortunately, Mortenson allowed me to come back into the work force with a temporarily flexible schedule. My supervisor shared that Mortenson recognized that this was a short time of necessary flexibility over the course of what they hoped would be a long career. They took the. long view. Now, I’m back full time and running some of the largest, most challenging and, most importantly, rewarding projects I could have imagined.

While women have tended to be the frontlines of issues like this, we are by no means the only. beneficiaries. Everyone in our industry will benefit from an approach to people that values training and growth, one that values employee wellbeing as well as their contributions to the jobsite, and empowers people to share new ideas and ways of working in service of a better. work environment for all.

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