For most construction companies, the recruiting and hiring process is ongoing. The fact that there is a shortage of qualified people in the construction industry should not be a surprise to anyone. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in the construction industry will grow at an average 11.4 percent between 2004 and 2014, with almost one million new jobs created within that period.

Despite the predicted need for more workers, the primary working age group (those between the ages of twenty-five and fifty-four years old) is projected to decline, resulting in approximately three million fewer workers in this age range alone. Pair that with the graying (and impending retirement) of the baby boomers, plus the negative image of the industry itself, and recruiting qualified people into construction-related positions has never been more critical. So much depends on a company’s ability to attract, recruit and retain talented people, and there are a number of factors to consider in order to maintain a competitive edge over other companies vying for the same potential employees.

Pre-Recruiting Musts 

One of the most important steps in the recruiting process occurs before the actual recruiting begins.  Organizations must identify what they are looking for in their ideal candidates and should be able to answer the following questions:

  • What skills and competencies does the position require?
  • Is the position to be filled on a temporary or permanent basis?
  • What types of applicants would most likely possess the skills and knowledge needed to be successful?
  • What education level is required for the position?
  • What impact will retirements have on the organization over the next few years?  

The next step is to ensure that all positions in the company have up-to-date job descriptions. Job descriptions are essential for understanding the tasks, knowledge, skills, abilities and qualifications required for each job.  Well thought-out job descriptions inform potential employees of what will be expected of them and if they want to continue with the hiring process. Every position in any organization should have a job description based on the following criteria:

  • Knowledge— Does the candidate have the education/background for the position?
  • Skills— Does the candidate have practical experience? This is based on the tasks and duties performed and must directly relate to the skills and competencies required to lead to the hire/not-to-hire decision.
  • Behaviors— Is the candidate compatible with the company’s culture?
  • Expectations— Do the candidate’s goals match the company’s goals?

 Employers benefit from job descriptions as well, since they can help clearly communicate a company’s direction and inform potential employees how they fit inside of the big picture. In addition, job descriptions force employers to have a complete understanding of what each position entails and the requisite skill sets, competencies and other credentials needed to perform the job, in order to achieve their organizational goals.  

Branding—How Does Your Company Stand Out? 

In addition to having accurate job descriptions for all positions, you must make sure your company has a reputation to be an excellent place to work. You need to be able to show why you are an employer of choice in order to attract people to YOUR company. One way to achieve this is by making a concerted effort to brand, market and sustain your image. In addition to offering competitive pay and benefits packages, take a hard look at what you are doing in terms of retaining, motivating, recognizing and rewarding your employees. Providing a healthy work-life balance, maintaining a diverse and welcoming work environment and offering challenging work assignments are also key for being an employer of choice. Discover what your current employees think about your company, the reasons why they stay and if they would recommend working at your organization to others.  You want your employees singing your praises as a great place to work.  

How to Determine the Right Fit 

You’ve determined your organization’s needs, created great job descriptions and positioned your company to stand out from the competition by being an employer of choice. Job announcements have been published in various media outlets, such as websites and student newspapers, resumes have been analyzed and interviews (either on campus or at your company) have been arranged. The next actions you take are critical, because hiring the right people up front is vital to your organization’s retention strategies. But how do you determine if a candidate will fit, both culturally and strategically? Will their personal characteristics match up with the company’s purpose and values? Do they have the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to help the company execute its vision and strategy?

There are a number of staffing assessment tools available to help make accurate hiring decisions. In addition to conducting structured interviews which include questions that determine a candidate’s qualifications and conducting background checks, many employers are using job knowledge and ability tests as well as personality or behavioral assessments to gauge if a person is the right fit. When used properly, behavioral and personality instruments can help determine which candidates have the highest probability of success in your organization. In addition, the assessments may uncover possible areas of concern that warrant further exploration. Keep in mind, these instruments should not be used as the only criteria in making definitive hiring decisions as they are not "pass-fail” tests. Rather, they provide an overall insight into the candidates to help decide if their characteristics fit your needs. 

But perhaps the best way to determine if someone is actually going to be the right fit for your company is to gauge performance, work ethic and skills through internships or co-op programs.   

Trying Them on for Size 

According to FMI’s 2007 U.S. Construction Industry Talent Development Report, almost 90 percent of those surveyed responded that they were increasing recruiting efforts at schools, colleges and universities to prepare for a changing workforce. Seventy-eight percent of the respondents said they used internships or co-op programs as a recruitment tool. Indeed, the highest rated Engineering News and Record’s (ENR) top 400 contractors’ websites show that the overwhelming majority offer co-op programs and/or internships. There is a difference between most internship and co-op programs. Internships are usually, but not always, one term, where students work part-time and still attend classes; or they are performed in the summer, and the students typically work full-time. Co-ops, on the other hand, are generally multi-term, where students work full-time one semester, and then attend classes full-time the next semester, over a period of two to three years. Internships are generally non-credit, and usually less formal than co-op programs, making them a more attractive option for many students.  

Dr. Mark Taylor, associate professor at Auburn University’s McWhorter School of Building Science, agrees that more of the students enrolled in building science complete internships instead of opting for their co-op program. They have about 70 students a semester that participate in co-ops, out of a total of 240 students that are in the professional program, which is junior and senior status. Taylor also adds that very few students graduate from their program without some work experience. Trent Johnson, a soon-to-be graduate of North Carolina State University’s Construction Engineering and Management program, concurs that more of his classmates choose internships over the university’s co-op program. “The co-op program is much more formal than the internships because you alternate semesters of school and work. More of my classmates have participated in the internships. The co-ops aren’t as common for the construction side as they are for the mechanical and electrical engineers.”

The goal of both co-ops and internships is for the students to gain practical, real-life work experience. According to Taylor, the companies that regularly hire Auburn students give them good levels of responsibility. They may be involved with pre-construction services and will help with estimating and scheduling. They also put the students out in the field where they may have tasks like those of assistant superintendents or assistant project managers.

Benefits to Students and to the Companies 

Internships and co-ops are usually a win-win situation for both the employers and the students, as they allow both parties to see how the job fits. Taylor acknowledges that the students “come back to class the next semester energized about what they learned, and they’re able to apply their new work experience directly to the classroom. Benefits to the students also include the contacts they make with folks in the industry and future employers.” Johnson could not agree more. “I learned so much during my internship, and more practical things than in college classes alone. It definitely helped me with the classes I took the semester after the internship, and I noticed that I understood things better, therefore getting more out of those classes because I had real experience I could relate the coursework to.” Johnson has been offered a position as a project engineer with one of ENR’s top 400 contractors upon graduating this December. He feels that his internship gave him the experience he needed, and noted that “most of the companies I interviewed with focused the interview around my internship, even though I had other non-construction work experience.”


Benefits of hiring former interns for the organization include increased retention rates of new employees, reduced training periods and improved personnel selection by using actual on-the-job performance as a real measurement for future success. Taylor feels one advantage is that companies are “getting an almost free look at potential employees. They can make sure that the student’s qualifications, goals and work ethic are right in line with the company before making an official offer.”

Some Tips for Creating Successful Intern Programs 

  • Create accurate job descriptions— Even though these positions by pure design are not permanent, it cannot be over-emphasized how important position descriptions are. They show the candidate what is expected of them and identify minimum levels of acceptable job performance.
  • Create meaningful learning objectives— The supervisor and the intern should work together to create mutually agreed upon learning objectives. This ensures both parties are on the same page and reduces the possibility of any later misunderstandings. Effective learning objectives are concise and measurable.
  • Designate a mentor— In addition to helping interns recognize their abilities and limitations, giving them insights into the company’s culture, as well as challenging them to achieve personal and professional goals, mentors also gain skills and strengthen their knowledge base from the partnership. Mentors should be someone other than a direct supervisor. Seek out employees who will serve as good role models and who have the talent, interest and time to work with the interns.
  • Develop a meaningful onboarding experience— Provide interns with any necessary transportation, parking and/or dress code information before they start. Once they do start, explain necessary policies (i.e., work hours, missing work, harassment, safety, etc.) Acquaint them to their work space and environment by introducing them to co-workers. Plan lunch activities with various staff members for the first week, and arrange a meeting with their mentor.
  • Provide training— Internships by their very nature are learning experiences, and training needs must be considered before the students even begin. Learning objectives will not be reached if there is not an effective training program in place.
  • Offer challenging assignments— Students want stimulating and real work experience. Couple challenging assignments with sufficient supervision to ensure interns are not only learning but also keeping pace. Include interns in organization events such as staff meetings and allow opportunities for networking and informational interviewing with key personnel.
  • Offer competitive pay— Survey your local job market and see what your competitors offer in terms of compensation.
  • Provide regular feedback— An internship is much more successful for both parties if constructive feedback is provided on a regular basis. Conduct a formal evaluation at the end of the internship that focuses on the interns’ learning objectives that were identified at the start of the internship. If the learning objectives were not met, suggestions for improvement should be given.

As the war for talent rages on, bringing new employees on board is an ongoing process. Successful companies will use a variety of tactics to ensure they are choosing the right people for their organizations from the beginning.   


Construction Business Owner, February 2008