Mentor Programs Safeguard the Future

Jan. 23, 2014

You—as in you personally—and your company are the best resources the construction industry has for good, skilled employees today and for the future. Advancing technologies, new regulations, and financial acumen are making the construction industry more sophisticated every day, yet to its shame, the United States has no educational infrastructure of merit to train and advance the careers of people seeking to make a living in equipment management. The result is a huge gap between smart, capable people who want a career in equipment and employers who are looking for qualified workers. The missing link is direction, and Kokosing Construction, which won the Fleet Masters Award in 2008, provides it by developing employee potential and ensuring the right people are ready to contribute.

Barth Burgett, executive vice president of equipment, explains the company’s philosophy and definition of mentoring.

“We expect people to do the job right, so we realized we had to spend the time to teach them how to do it,” he says. “Mentoring is teaching people to solve problems and do even a better job than what the teacher did in the past.”

“Doing it right” is the key. The path between learning a skill and effectively applying it is sometimes the roughest part of the journey. With direction from a person who has already successfully negotiated that path, a less experienced person has a more reasonable chance to perform.

“Intention without direction is a like a flat tire on a racecar,” Burgett says. “You need to not only know your goal, but also how to get to your goal.” Learning to apply skills—application—is the basis of direction. Burgett says the best ways to teach application skills are with one-on-one support from people who are themselves successful examples.

“One-on-one mentoring is more effective than training because it teaches how we (Kokosing) do things, not just what needs to be done. People need to understand the company’s philosophies and procedures so that they can grow into their position.”

Mentoring is an open-form and fluid process at Kokosing, and continues through an employee’s career with the company. Kokosing doesn’t have a formal mentoring program in the sense of a hardbound handbook, but it does have a well-defined mentoring culture that is based on relationships and sharing knowledge.

“It’s all about people,” says Burgett. “Everyone can point to a person who made a difference in their lives. By sharing knowledge, we build relationships that strengthen each other and the company. Any company can put a warm body in a job, but I have people I can count on.”

The Kokosing process

Upon starting a new position, an employee is partnered with a mentor who will share skills and insights that are particular to that job. Burgett says each position has a checklist including skills and certifications required to do the job correctly. For example, if a new mechanic will need a CDL, Kokosing provides training, equipment and access to testing opportunities. The worker is responsible to complete the checklist; the company ensures the employee has the resources.

Kokosing mentors personalize support for the people they work with. For example, a mechanic may require more knowledge on computerized equipment diagnostics. The mentor arranges for the mechanic to spend some time with an IT person to learn more about how his laptop and the equipment’s diagnostic module communicate with one another. As the two people share their knowledge, both gain key insight into the other’s success.

How to Assemble a Fleet Manager

A contractor looking for a new fleet manager may be better served to hire for two desks, not one, according to Kokosing’s Barth Burgett.

“It takes two different types of people working in harmony to get the best results,” he says. “One part of the team needs to be a mechanical person who knows how a machine runs, the vehicle’s component strengths and weaknesses, and how the working environment will affect those systems. The other person needs organizational skills and a good understanding of how the vehicle’s components affect financial issues.”

The common denominator between both people is the same, though. “If you don’t understand equipment, you can’t be a fleet manager,” Burgett says.

A technician with good predictive skills can determine how the machine’s components will wear, how much expected downtime will be required for servicing and repairing those components, and expected useful life in hours.

Based on reasonable expectations of how efficiently the machine will perform, the other half of the fleet manager position can weigh variables such as ownership costs against rental or leasing, operational costs versus hours billed, and eventual disposal costs. Kokosing splits its fleet management job into two parts so that each is given the concentration and attention required.

“Fleet managers buy 80 percent of their problems by not knowing what they are buying,” Burgett says. “It’s important for the fleet manager position to understand how the mechanics of each component on a piece of equipment operates so that he can determine how that component will wear and affect the aging of the vehicle. We have good technicians that have come up through their groups who do a great job of recognizing how a piece of equipment has been used. They understand the design of the components within the vehicle and can anticipate failure. We ask for their opinions when it comes time to replace or add a vehicle to our fleet because they know each part’s reliability.”

Burgett says the detailed reports from the technicians give the non-mechanical half of the fleet manager team the information needed to determine the financial requirements and restraints for the fleet.

Chuck Hoffner says he often asks his support techs to discuss their reports and recommendations with Burgett. “A field tech may notice a rented machine is getting more use, more hours than originally forecasted,” he says. “Since he’s in the field, he can see how much more work that vehicle will need to do on that project, and also knows if it has to be shared with another project. He’ll come to me and recommend Kokosing consider buying that type of machine based on anticipated use.” Hoffner says that technician recommendations on the equipment’s design and how it fits the project’s application are very valuable and often asks the tech to discuss his findings with Burgett.

Kokosing’s team approach to fleet management gives the company a much deeper view of its equipment’s operational and financial efficiency.

This benefits Kokosing several ways. First, relationships are created as each worker gains better understanding of what other people contribute to the company’s success. Seeing how each person and department supports the company allows employees to gain firsthand experience with the people doing the jobs. Knowing how people work builds confidence in the department.

Within these relationships grows an environment where problems are more likely to be discussed as situations where several people can pool their expertise to find a solution. Chuck Hoffner, CEM, works department manager, is a Kokosing mentor.

“A nonjudgmental environment is very important to developing the level of trust needed so that the employee knows you have their interests at heart,” Hoffner says. “The people I work with know they can call me any time and ask how to do something. I’m a shoulder to lean on, I guess. By helping them develop their skills, we show them how we want to do business, how we want our operations to run.”

As employees grow within the company, they are given opportunities to work at Kokosing affiliate companies for more experience in other segments of the Kokosing construction group, Hoffner says. Similarly, the Advance Development Program for young engineers and Advance Leadership Program for midlevel management provide exposure to different parts of the company. Mentors in this case are division vice presidents, team leads, and assistant vice presidents who meet with these groups to discuss topics such as strategic planning and financial reports.

Kokosing works with outside sources who train the mentors. OEMs will train mentors on equipment operation, for example. When the mentor will be working with a person who will eventually earn certification in their field, the mentor will already have earned that certification and been qualified to support the employee’s training.

Kokosing doesn’t demand all seasoned employees mentor junior workers, but it doesn’t seem to lack for volunteers who want to share their experience. Most are at management level and support their people as part of doing their own job.

All Kokosing employees are required to have 40 hours of training every year. To help make that happen, Kokosing designates three months from January to March for their Annual Winter Training, usually held at their Fredricktown, Ohio, location. As an employee completes training and certifications earned both in-house and from industry affiliates such as unions, equipment manufacturers, and trade associations, Kokosing’s human resources department tracks the employee’s training history and schedules them for updates and renewals.

Burgett says the company does not have a set-in-stone list of prerequisites that must be met before an employee is hired or is encouraged into a mentoring relationship. He is more interested in a worker’s willingness to learn and work in harmony with other employees. Many times, it is a casual observation by a manager or supervisor who notices an employee’s work ethic or problem-solving ability that leads to encouraging the worker to work with a mentor.

Kokosing actively looks for new employees, and Burgett puts special emphasis on potential young workers because he sees a segment of high school graduates who have tremendous potential but are not necessarily college bound: an untapped resource.

“I call them the In-Betweeners,” Burgett says. “Maybe they haven’t been encouraged to go to college, or other circumstances prevent them from attending. Sometimes these young people have made their way through a vocational career school but haven’t had the direction to put what they’ve learned to use.

“Some younger workers come here referred by another Kokosing employee,” he says. “We also have valuable partnerships with the career schools in the area. Some kids start as summer employees, and others come from the school of hard knocks. All go through interviews with several departments. We look for eagerness to learn and accept responsibility. In some cases, we might find a young person who thinks he or she would like to work in a particular part of the company, but we see their potential in another part. We’ll sit with them and plan out a whole career plan, which may include a two-year program at a diesel school before they start with us. We are a union shop, so we also assist those workers who want to start a union apprentice program.”

Employee turnover at Kokosing is low in part because the company actively cultivates workers’ skills to extend into their next position.

“It is important to keep employees motivated,” Burgett says. “We want them to stretch and grow.” This future-forward attitude serves the company well in several ways. Employees see their value to the company increase and have a more optimistic view of their career within the firm, and Kokosing is able to do long-range planning knowing key positions will be filled by highly competent people who already know how to do the job right.

Burgett says it seems to just come naturally for the employees who have benefited from mentoring to want to pass on their experience and knowledge because they find it fulfilling. “You know, when your time on Earth ends, what people will remember about you is what you taught them.”