A common gripe throughout the construction industry is that contractors can’t find, reach, hire, and train workers quickly enough to keep up with demand. However, as some companies are discovering, there is an opportunity to bridge that workforce gap through worker reentry programs. These programs, often associated with employing formerly incarcerated individuals and other people looking to reenter the workforce, are also instrumental in breaking longstanding societal stigmas as well as cycles of poverty and injustice.
The ability to solve interdependent workforce and poverty crises is what set the stage for a multifaceted workforce development program at Flagger Force, a major construction work zone safety company with many locations throughout the East Coast, including Pennsylvania. Shea Zwerver, a workforce development manager at Flagger Force, says the company has parlayed its relationship with the Living Classrooms Foundation – a nonprofit that aims to break poverty cycles through workforce development – into a full-fledged workforce development program that could serve as a model for others.
The core function of the program, Zwerver says, is to remove barriers, some of which are easy to take for granted. For example, Flagger Force makes it easy for everyone who wishes to participate in the program to apply online. There’s no need for a prospective employee to meticulously craft a resume or cover letter. Work experience is nice, but not a prerequisite. Zwerver acknowledges, though, that not all construction businesses are the same and that it may be best to evaluate employees on a case-by-case basis.
“I’d advise not adopting blanket policy statements that exclude everyone with … a certain conviction history, unless it directly pertains to the performance or the job,” she says.
One of the biggest pain points for people in a reentry program, according to Zwerver, is figuring out how they will commute to work. She notes that because of the nature of Flagger Force’s work, job site locations can change within a workday, which can add complexity to transportation logistics. For its part, Flagger Force asks entry-level crew members to be able to commute up to 50 air miles, or nautical miles, which converts to roughly 57.5 miles on land. That specific metric accounts for things such as mountainous terrain in northern Pennsylvania or flat, sea-level terrain like certain parts of Maryland.
The travel piece is also particularly important for those who participate in Flagger Force’s mentor/mentee program. While the company does not have a specific algorithm to determine how far apart geographically a mentor and mentee will be, Zwerver says it isn’t difficult to find pairings that make sense. Mentors are often asked to pick up their mentees and bring them to the job site, but they are offered financial incentives for doing so.
“It has to make sense from a business standpoint,” she says. “We won’t have someone go really far out of their way to pick up someone to then go back in another direction for a job.”
Other aspects of Flagger Force’s workforce program that make business sense are the services it makes available to participants so they can bring their best selves to work. Last fall, the company announced its partnership with a GED-testing service to help employees looking to earn GED credentials. It also has a 24/7 hotline that employees can call or text for free for 30 minutes about everything from mental health issues to work-related concerns and even legal advice.
Above all else, Zwerver feels the best thing construction companies can do when making the jump into a worker reentry program is to prioritize communication. A worker in your program might not feel entirely comfortable sharing what barriers he or she may be facing. Therefore, the onus is on the employer to get ahead of it and make sure any upfront costs, such as investing in steel-toed boots or two-way radio, are communicated in a timely way and are not prohibitive to gaining a great employee.