Crew Collaborative: Cultivating the Next Construction Generation

April 30, 2024
Organization works to make construction education accessible and fun.

You can’t be what you don’t see, and one industry organization is determined to change that for young people and their education on the construction trades.

Since its inception following Conexpo 2020, Crew Collaborative has focused on its mission of recruiting the next generation of construction professionals. The goal is to strengthen the blue-collar workforce and change the stigma surrounding careers in construction through education, conversation, events, and advocacy.

President Kate Rieling co-founded the group and has been there every step of the way.

“What started as an Instagram group chat with other women in construction turned into a meet up at Conexpo 2020 and then another meet up in July of 2020 in Minneapolis,” says Rieling. “We discussed our challenges in the industry and what we could do to show all of the opportunities for all sorts of people in the industry.”

“Crew started as a women's initiative,” says Alicia Brentzel, co-founder and treasurer, and a member of the Under 40 in Construction Equipment Class of 2023. “Crew stands for ’Construction Retreat Empowering Women.’  When we met at Conexpo, it was great to be around women in the industry, because there's not a ton of us.”

Although the initial identified need for Crew was for women to support women in the industry, Rieling says the founders ultimately broadened the reach of the organization to include as many people as possible.

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“We determined that there are already organizations that serve the female population in our industry, and we wanted to try something different,” she says. “So, to take on the bigger issues at hand, we decided to work on the overall shortage of workers entering the construction industry and be an example of what is possible. We are taking on the  ‘you can’t be what you don’t see’ problem by holding a nearly 50/50 split of male and female board members, with a mix of equipment operators, marketing managers, technical educators, business owners, project managers, material sales managers, technology experts, and more.”

Founding members agreed to define the “why” before thinking of fresh, inventive methods of recruiting the next construction generation.

“Our industry is in desperate need of new talent and ideas,” says Rieling. “People are retiring at a rate that far exceeds the rate at which we are adding new people. Without a construction workforce our country will be in trouble. Just think about all the infrastructure that needs to be maintained and added to keep up with growth and shifting populations.”

The initiatives

Crew Classroom Talks focuses on bringing construction and skilled trade professionals directly into middle school and high school classrooms. Using virtual methods, students can interact with professionals across the country who are on job sites.

A typical Classroom Talk is approximately 40-45 minutes, which includes a Crew introduction, five to six presenters, and a Q&A session. Prior to the Talk, the Crew board of directors vets and selects a variety of skilled professionals to speak, in hopes that each student can see themselves represented in one of the presenters. Classroom Talk presenters are required to talk about their career path, a day in the life, pros and cons, and provide a salary range.

“The Classroom Talks program is our bread and butter,” says Hakken. “It gives industry professionals the opportunity to share their passion for their specific job while also showcasing the vast array of career paths that are available to students.”

Classroom Talks also make it possible for young people to gain hands-on experience and have fun while doing it, according to Brentzel.

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“We like to educate kids, but also a big part of it is making it fun,” says Brentzel. “Technology is the future. Who better to get involved than the kids using it right now? On the last school visit we did, we got a bunch of remote-control excavators and dozers, and the carpentry class there built us ramps and made a sandpit. We’re getting them accustomed to the idea that soon running equipment probably won’t be much different than running an RC [radio control] vehicle.”

Crew combines education with hands-on experience in its Ambassador program, also. The initiative helps vetted industry professionals learn speaking skills, personal and professional development tactics, and how to best engage with their local community to spread the word about the industry’s opportunities.

Crew Ambassadors then become mentors for the incoming workforce Crew brings on through initiatives like its Classroom Talks.

“We have completed four sessions of our Ambassador Program, graduating 113 Crew ambassadors so far,” says Rieling. “Since the beginning of this program in March of 2022, seven Ambassador graduates have gone on to serve on our board of directors with others engaged in committees and attending events like Conexpo as representatives of Crew.”

Attracting the next generation

To promote its initiatives, Crew employs an array of inventive methods to appeal to the interests of younger generations.

One way Crew brings visibility to its mission is through attending industry events where its board members and ambassadors engage industry leaders and attendees by talking about the ideas driving its initiatives.

Hakken provides a complete list of all the events the organization has participated in. In addition to Conexpo 2023 and the Utility Expo 2023, Crew has attended the American School Counselor Association Expo 2023. It also attended the 2024 International Builders’ Show.

“Going into these trade shows is just another way to get in front of people to let them know we’re available to come and speak to them to try and give them a different approach to their careers,” says Eric “E.J.” Herron, marketing committee chair, and a member of the Under 40 in Construction Equipment Class of 2014. “The goal is not to say college is bad, but we’re speaking to the people who may not know why they’re going to college or what they want to do and putting another option in front of them.”

Bringing visibility to those options is bolstered by the sponsorships Crew has managed to secure for each of its initiatives; FrameWork is sponsored by Case; Classroom Talks by Toro; and the Ambassador program by Caterpillar. The public support from these major players in the industry underscores the imminence of Crew’s mission to educate and the sense of inventiveness it’s entwining to accomplish it.

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Another important marketing avenue for Crew is its social media channels. Since its beginnings in 2020, the nonprofit has amassed more than 10,000 followers across its LinkedIn, Instagram, and Facebook channels. Daily content promotes current initiatives through photos from attended events and highlights different pathways to success in an industry.

“We have to capture people’s attention, and it's hard because they have so much thrown at them every day,” says Herron. “People are inundated with what to look at, and to grab their attention we have to keep track of trends and appeal to their interests, whether that’s with a unique video or a program they can get into. We always try to have something out there though, so that if people stumble across it, they see it and may want more information.”

Herron’s 2024 goals as committee chair include virtual initiatives to reach wider audiences. One way to do that is by launching a webpage where board members and program graduates can share their personal stories to generate interest in the trades.

“We want to hit up on some interesting videos that will grab attention,” he says. “Another goal is to showcase the stories of all our members. We have a very diverse group that make up all parts of the trades, not just dirt moving like me. They’re in plumbing, electrical, welding, and so on. We want to have videos of each one of them talking about their background and how they got into the role they're in currently."

About the Author

Harlee Hewitt

Harlee is associate editor for Construction Equipment. She has a Bachelor's in English with a focus on technical writing.