Informal Mentor

By G.C. Skipper, Contributing Editor | September 28, 2010
Chris Ryan mentors Gary Lipani

Mentoring has been the basis of employee career advancement at Boh Bros. Construction for 34 years. Although the company has no formal program, it is an important part of the Boh Bros. corporate culture. Chris Ryan, CEM, left, mentored Gary Lipani, who started out as a laborer and now is supervisor of the Boh Bros. facility in Hammond, La.

Mentoring, a word that conjures up a certain academic mystique, may seem out of place in the dirt-moving, yellow-iron world of construction with its hard hats and clanging shops. Fleet managers, too busy monitoring machines and tracking fuel consumption, utilization rates and an endless array of other daily functions, aren’t apt to pay much attention to the word, much less understand it.

Yet the many faces of mentoring are quickly recognizable once you know what it is. Just ask Chris Ryan, CEM, vice president of equipment for Boh Bros. Construction in New Orleans. He’s been doing it for 34 years.

“Mentoring takes on many different forms,” Ryan says. “It is not a formal program with us. and there is no procedures manual. But over the years, we’ve learned that there are steps that need to be taken to develop people in the different crafts, develop supervisors, develop machine operators, drivers and technicians.”

In other words, mentoring is nothing more than helping train, guide and direct employees along their particular career paths. Boh Bros., for example, uses apprentices and makes sure they receive additional training along with the basics. They are teamed up with qualified journeymen to make sure they are properly instructed before they are allowed to work on their own, Ryan says.

Technicians, for example, start out as mechanic helpers and gradually proceed through online electronic training by several major OEMs in such crafts as engine repair, hydraulics, electrical and drive train.

“Employees do it at their own pace on their own time,” Ryan says. “During this time period while they are gaining the knowledge they need to do the job, they are working with a qualified journeyman. That gives them hands-on training on a daily basis and that, in turn, gives them the knowledge base they need to work on their own.”

The informal mentoring program also extends to the company’s over-the-road truck drivers, Ryan says. Boh Bros. uses a “step wise” method for progressing in this area.

“We don’t just hire someone off the street to drive our largest lowboy tractor,” he says. “We typically hire someone to drive a flatbed or delivery truck. Once they get the proper endorsements and licensing, we give them the opportunity to build added time on other vehicles, such as a roll back truck.”

Experienced drivers monitor this training, and once management and the drivers feel the neophyte is ready, they move him to the next step. That could be a fuel truck, for instance. It takes awhile, Ryan says, but eventually the trainee reaches the premiere position of driving the company’s largest lowboys.

Ryan doesn’t just select an individual that he thinks is bright and trainable to be mentored. Anyone who is qualified to be hired by the company can expect the same intensive career training.

The incentive for trainees to spend their own time to develop their skills is simple: They get more pay as they progress. Yet if an individual goes six or eight months with no training activity on his record, a conference is held with that person. “We have an understanding that if they are not going to develop, then we can’t use them.”

At the top of the priority list for anyone who works at Boh Bros, regardless of position, is safety. The company uses a job safety analysis (JSA) to reinforce this emphasis on safe and proper procedures.

“JSAs refer to a process where, for instance, if someone is going to pull the tracks off a bulldozer today, that person has to think of all the things that can happen, think of all the hazards involved in taking the tracks off,” Ryan says, “He then lists them, and after that, he lists the things that can be done to protect himself from those hazards.”

This conscious process of analyzing what they are going to do each day forces employees to stop and think, Ryan says. “I can’t tell you how important this is to our business. The challenge is to keep the process fresh so it doesn’t become just more paper work,” he says. Managers need to be constantly working with employees to help them understand the importance of JSAs to safe operations.

One employee who knows first-hand how successful the company’s informal mentoring program has been is Gary Lipani. His first job at Boh Bros. was as a laborer. Today, he is the supervisor of the company’s equipment facility in Hammond, La.

“I started out in the pipe division and stayed there a couple of years,” Lipani says. When Ryan found out Lipani had experience working with glass, Lipani was given an opportunity to move to the equipment department.

“I was not a mechanic,” Lipani says. “But I was good at working with glass. At the time, we were using a couple of outside vendors to do our glass work. Chris Ryan wanted to bring that work in-house, and when he found out I had some experience in this area, he moved me over to the equipment division. Eventually, we brought all the glass work in-house, repairing cranes, trucks and other equipment.”

Lipani’s work was monitored by Ryan and an immediate supervisor. The process went so well that Lipani was offered an opportunity to move into the office when a position came open.

“My immediate supervisor asked me if I was interested—and I certainly was,” Lipani says. He progressed from there. Now, as supervisor of the Hammond facility, Lipani finds himself in the mentoring loop, guiding other employees along career paths and having them advance safely and with the fully developed skills they need.

“There is a tremendous responsibility that goes with [mentoring],” Lipani says. “We are putting people out on the road everyday, and in construction, there are a lot of opportunities to get hurt. You have to be willing to take on that responsibility and the attitude that goes with it”

Lapini is an avid proponent of mentoring. “It is absolutely invaluable in our business.”

“Mentoring is a two-way street,” Ryan says. “Any supervisor with any ability knows that he has to learn from his trainee as well.”

Mention mentoring around contractors, Ryan says, and the response he hears most often is, “I don’t mentor.”

“Those contractors aren’t even aware that they are already doing it,” he says. “What about the safety meetings they hold or assigning guys to do a job and discussing the hazards of that job with them? What about the continuing communication that is required to make sure people are working safely, efficiently and are doing quality work?

“That,” he says, “is mentoring.”

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