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Construction Companies Look to Experienced Veterans in Addressing Skilled Labor Shortages

Posted: 12-1-2017

by Edmond Ortiz

Steve Genevish, formerly an artillery officer with the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division, tried working in a factory and then energy exploration before landing a construction job.

To hear him talk, Genevish may stick with it. And contractors need more veterans like him.

Genevish served two tours in Afghanistan, leaving the Army after more than four years with the rank of captain. He has continued his ties to the military as an Army Reserve company commander and engineer officer.

His first job after active duty was as a maintenance planner for a paper mill in Orange, Texas. He left to by a design engineer in offshore oil and gas exploration. From there, Addison-based KWA Construction recruited him.

Steve Genevish

As diverse as his career choices may seem, Genevish found his skills were easily transferable.

“The military taught me how to manage and lead people, plan operations, and track the execution of an operation. This directly translates into the construction industry on both the superintendent and project manager sides. The only gaps are understanding the order of construction, reading plans, and a knowledge of building code,” Genevish said.

Hiring military veterans has long been ingrained in KWA culture. Company founder Keller Webster is an Army vet. His son and company president, Brian Webster, said military personnel develop intangible skills—integrity, high ethical standards, adaptability, resourcefulness—all of which are assets to themselves and the contractors that seek to hire them. They also arrive with tangible skills like physical strength, knowledge in operating machinery, project management, and extensive experience with budgets and deadlines, he added.

“Also, some veterans leave the military with construction experience already under their belt, and can start from day one with a great understanding of how operations works,” Webster said.

Capt. Jimmy Bodies, another KWA hire, worked as an engineer officer. He had been with the U.S. Army for 10 years. Prior to his military service, Bodies was a make-ready technician and painter for an apartment community.

He said of his Army experience that stressful and demanding leadership roles required attention to detail and tough decision-making. It prepared him for a life in construction.

“I had the opportunity to work with people of all nationalities and cultural background across the world, which is very similar to the construction industries. A majority of our contractors are from all over the world, so it wasn’t a cultural shock at all for me,” Bodies said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provides many courses and training opportunities that translate well to the civilian world, Bodies added.“For example, construction management, project management, hazardous materials, and master level courses enhance our leadership skills,” he said.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the construction industry will need to add 1.6 million jobs over the next four years. However, the employers in the construction trades have been hampered by a shortage of skilled labor. More construction firms, hiring agencies and non-profit organizations are recruiting military vets to help fill the gaps.

North Carolina-based Orion Talent specializes in recruiting veterans for an array of jobs nationwide. By 2007, Orion Talent became the country’s largest military recruitment firm. To date, it has place about 1,750 veterans in the construction industry.

Orion consultant Dom Serra said, “Each year, nearly 200,000 military veterans exit the service looking for their next career. Construction firms can benefit tremendously from the work ethic, operational leadership, and time management skills these veterans have gained from years spent planning, executing, and managing projects/missions in the military.”

The construction industry is in a time in which an increasing number of skilled veterans can apply their talents, traits and experiences.

“This situation has been brought about by the continued construction boom in Texas, the gap in qualified, experienced talent, and the lull in oil-industry hiring,” Serra said.

Construction firms in Texas have seen a great deal of success in hiring veterans into different levels of engineering, project management, and superintendent roles.

“Similarly, with regards to skilled labor, there is a large pool of electrical and mechanical technicians exiting the military each year. These technical experts quickly become assets within the construction industry as electricians, equipment mechanics, and multi-craft technicians,” Serra said.

Employers that appreciate the different backgrounds and skillsets of transitioning servicemembers, and how they fit into roles within that company experience the best outcomes. Veterans here are lauded for their loyalty, patience and satisfaction with working for a company that fosters a family-friendly, professional atmosphere.As a result, industry experts say, companies are able to easily retain veterans.

“After gaining an understanding of how to assess veteran experience, skill, and capabilities, you must then learn to attract and retain this great talent,” he added.

KWA has 12 veterans on its 60-person team. Another successful transitioning servicemember has been Steve Peralez, a 20-year vet with the U.S. Marine Corps. He achieved the rank of chief warrant officer while in uniform, and today is an assistant superintendent.

Having been involved in heavy equipment operations in military construction projects, Peralez developed his fair share of leadership management skills. He led teams in building airfields, roads and bridges.

“Project management background really got me prepared because I knew nothing about building apartments,” he added.

Peralez said received plenty of lessons in three months in the civilian construction trade.

“Everyday I’m still learning. What I call certain things have special names in the construction industry, so everyday I’m learning new terminology,” he explained. “The best part about KWA is that when they hire you, you really don’t need apartment construction background. They’re looking for people that have a certain skillset of management and leadership, then can learn the business and grow from there.”

Peralez said there are similarities in leadership and support organizational structures between military and civilian construction. But he relishes learning new intricacies of the civilian construction trade on a daily basis.

“It’s pretty cool to be learning at 47,” he said.

Webster admits it can be hard for some veterans to transition into civilian life. But because they will be at active work sites, veterans will see little to no time behind a desk, and that engaging role can benefit vets, Webster said.

“Many veterans are attracted to the dynamic setting of the active job-site — coordinating with various teams, vendors and contractors creates similar structures to organizations like the Army or the Marine Corps,” said Webster.

“Also, the construction industry is conducive to laying out a clear career path and goals, which is encouraging to veterans. It’s also what they’re used to.”