It’s no secret that the construction industry is growing at an exponential rate. After a 1.9% shrink following the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, the U.S. construction industry is forecasted to grow more than 6% annually in 2021 and 2022. In November of 2021, the construction industry employed over 7,533,000 individuals. ?? This growth in economic value means an increase in job openings. In fact, there were 420,000 openings in October 2021 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This number has been on an upward trend for most of the past year.
With a projected increased spending on infrastructure, asphalt departments across the country are expected to see even more openings in the coming months. We sat down with Bill Poole, Executive Vice President and General Manager of Gray & Son’s Asphalt Division, to speak with him about how the department is looking to grow and just what a career in asphalt means at Gray & Son.
Gray & Son: Paving the Way in Asphalt Careers
Poole is no stranger to the asphalt industry. With 36 years under his belt and involvement in nearly every aspect of asphalt, he’s somewhat of a rarity. “It’s hard to find someone who has worked in every facet of the industry,” mused Poole. However, this experience has helped Poole and his team shape a department that understands the ins and outs of asphalt.
From that experience, Poole understands just how important the entry level positions in his asphalt department are. These positions directly produce the high-quality work that Gray & Son has become well-known for, and have the potential to grow and shape the company. When starting a career in asphalt with Gray & Son, employees are given a comprehensive experience. “We’re going to teach you how to operate a roller, hop on the back of a paver, how to manage people, leadership…” said Poole. All of these skills, both technical and soft skills, are what helps shape an individual’s career and give them the potential for upward growth.
Throughout his years, Poole has seen the rise of automation in asphalt and watched younger generations don their hard hats. However, he’s aware that the humble beginning of a career in asphalt hasn’t changed much. “Entry level positions can still be manual labor,” noted Poole. “Whether working at an asphalt plant or on a paving crew, that hasn’t changed.”
However, Poole has seen the industry, specifically the team at Gray & Son, place a higher level of investment into these green laborers. “Here’s the key change—the mentality of the employer to grow talent from within,” said Poole.
Historically, the average turnover rate in the construction industry has hovered around 2% higher than the national average. As paving companies navigated the pandemic, most realized that this plaguing problem was one that they would have to face head on to be able to meet a surge in demand. “Employers nowadays, Gray & Son in particular, are much more willing to invest in those entry level positions,” said Poole.
Entry Level Investment
One of the biggest ways Gray & Son has moved to help further the careers of young or novice employees in their asphalt division is assistance with certifications. Some industry-specific certifications can cost several hundred dollars and require the employee to spend countless hours learning material. “We realized about a year ago that we had deficiencies in our quality control field testers,” noted Poole. The solution to the problem was a direct investment into the employees of the Gray & Son asphalt department. “We recruited individuals and helped put them through all the training to get their certification up to date. We paid them to do that, and we paid for their certifications.”
This investment in entry level positions is one that benefits both the employees and the company as a whole. Poole and his team look for employees that show promise and pour extra resources into them. “Our willingness to take someone from the entry level positions who shows some initiative, has good attendance, work ethic, and interest in wanting to grow is something we’re excited about,” said Poole.
In addition to aiding with certifications, Gray & Son has evolved their department structure to include a new role that recognizes those employees who show promise and initiative beyond technical skills. “It’s not just technical; there’s a leadership component that’s very important in any industry, but in our industry in particular,” explained Poole. Gray & Son has recently created a Lead Person Role that allows for recognition and promotion of employees that are performing well in their position, even if there is not a vacancy in a management role at the time. “We finalized it this month, and we’re very excited about it.”
The Gray Way
It’s this investment and consideration into employee advancement that sets Gray & Son apart from the rest. In the wake of the pandemic, with many service-based jobs seeing a dwindling labor pool, it can be easy for companies to blame external factors for their hiring and retention woes.
However, the Gray & Son management team used the past twenty-four months to evaluate their employee management tactics and see what improvements can be made. “It’s easy to complain about those [external] things, but to actually sit down and do something to try and show our employees that there’s a career path for them, that we’re willing to invest in them, I think that’s what differentiates us,” said Poole. “We’re on the cutting edge—we’re thinking about these things and addressing them.”
New Year, New Goals
With the passing of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, paving companies are gearing up to meet the demand of government funded projects. The Gray & Son team is placing team expansion high on their list of goals, but they’ve created a two-part strategy for this. “Obviously, we’re thinking, ‘how do we recruit?’ We know there’s a lot of infrastructure spending out there,” Poole noted about the need for a larger team of employees.
However, Gray & Son has also worked to develop a strategy that works with the seasonality of the asphalt industry. Due to cold temperatures, paving slows down or stops in most places of the United States from December through February. As a result, many paving employees face seasonal lay-offs.
Gray & Son has worked to combat that industry standard, shifting employees into other departments, such as demolition or QPR, during off-season. “The earlier we get started [paving] in the season, the quicker we can bring those employees back,” noted Poole. “We really wanted to do something to help increase employee continuity.” By moving Gray & Son employees within the company, seasonal lay-offs are drastically reduced, employees are able to gain new skill sets, and, by avoiding having to recruit new employees each spring, the paving division gets back to work sooner.
The Future of Asphalt Careers
While the Gray & Son team is gearing up to tackle what could be one of their biggest years yet, Poole and his team are still cognizant of what could be coming to the industry in the next five years or so.
“Autonomous cars are coming,” said Poole with a laugh. “It’s going to put more pressure on the industry to make sure we’re technically paving.” While Gray & Son is well-known for their high quality work, this need for technicality reinforces the importance of investing in their team members’ knowledge and skills. In addition to autonomous cars, Poole is expecting a higher level of technology to make its way into the paving industry. “As we utilize more technology in our industry, that’s going to be intriguing to younger generations,” noted Poole.
And while younger generations may excitedly embrace the addition of new tech to a centuries-old industry, there may be growing pains with some industry standards. Poole has seen how younger generations place a higher priority on family and work-life balance. “I’m not saying that’s a bad thing at all,” said Poole. “They may have that part figured out pretty well, so we’ve got to find ways to provide that better balance.” That equilibrium between work life and home life is something that Gray & Son is helping their employees find.
Pave the Way for Your Future With a Career at Gray & Son
For more than a century, Gray & Son has been known for providing top-quality service in the Baltimore Metropolitan Area. This is credited to the company’s most important asset: the employees. A career in asphalt with Gray & Son offers opportunities for success, competitive wages, and comprehensive benefits. To learn more or to submit an application, visit our careers page.