A Perfect Match: Veterans and the Construction Industry

by Balfour Beatty

January 20, 2020

Veterans’ Leadership Skills Can Help Solve the Construction Industry’s Talent Shortage

Generally, the labor shortage impacting the construction industry has been well-documented. Results of a 2019 national survey of construction firms indicated that 70% of firms surveyed are struggling with a range of labor shortage issues, including meeting project deadlines, employees taking on increased workloads, and rejecting new work. As the labor shortage persists, veterans are taking center stage as a pool of talent-rich in the skillsets needed for successful construction careers.

There are currently more than four million, post-Gulf War veterans in the U.S. Most of these veterans are between the ages of 25 and 44, and nearly 200,000 military men and women transition to civilian life each year. The construction industry has always attracted veterans, and it is a source of pride for our industry that so many veterans choose construction careers. Tamara Yang, Navy veteran and national vice president of organizational development for Balfour Beatty’s Buildings group, explains how veterans are a natural fit for construction. 

“When I left military service, I was encouraged to interview with a construction company, despite my lack of construction training. During the interview, one of the firm’s vice presidents said to me, ‘Do you know why we want to hire veterans? You come with leadership and management skills that we struggle to teach.’ Through my own recruitment efforts over the years, I have found this to be consistently true.”

Building Leaders

At Balfour Beatty, we have observed a strong correlation between both the technical and leadership skills taught in the military and the skillsets needed in the construction industry. 

Areas of the military, including the Naval Civil Engineering Corps (CEC), the Naval Construction Battalion (Seabees) and the US Army Corp of Engineers (USACE), provide technical training directly applicable to the construction industry. Veterans from these areas of service qualify for a wide range of construction positions, including equipment operators, foremen and carpenters. Non-combat military positions also align with support services positions in construction, such as human resources and finance among others. 

A significant advantage of hiring veterans is the leadership skills they have acquired—no matter their rank or position. “Veterans understand how to lead and earn people’s trust,” praises Yang. “They can manage both people and projects. They will size up a project, understand the materials needed and learn quickly to deliver on the goal.” 

A survey (Zenger, Folkman, 2014) of more than 300,000 managers reported that complex problem-solving is the second most important leadership skill next to the ability to inspire and motivate. Jordan Webster, US Army veteran and Balfour Beatty safety health & environment (SH&E) director, served as a combat medic in Iraq and describes how complex problem-solving leadership skills develop in the military. 

“No two days are the same. There is constant change, which makes military personnel masters of flexibility and adaptability. While there is organizational structure, there also great responsibility and freedom of necessity that require military personnel to think outside the box, often using limited resources to deliver the mission. This breeds confidence and a ‘can do’ spirit. Veterans understand that it is possible for them to accomplish things they’ve never done, and this is the perfect catalyst to thriving in the construction industry.”

Even though the construction industry has always naturally attracted veterans, now more than ever, there is a need to increase the active recruitment of veterans and provide training and a path to transition to civilian life. 

A Sense of Purpose and Place: Combating Veteran Suicide

The 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report found that the number of veteran suicides exceeded 6,000 each year from 2008 to 2017. In 2017, the suicide rate for veterans was 16.8 per day, 1.5 times the rate for non-veteran adults. Even though causes of suicide are multifactorial, the VA report indicates that, “Some veterans report difficulty in transitioning to civilian positions. Their highly developed skills obtained in the military may not translate to higher-level positions in the civilian world.” 

A 2015 study (Zoli, Maury, & Fay, 2015) of more than 8,500 veterans, active duty service members, National Guard and Reserve members, and military dependents reported that 55 percent identified finding a job as one of the most significant transition challenges—with 39 percent reporting challenges in applying military-learned skills to civilian life. Military personnel is highly trained professionals with a clear understanding of the purpose of their mission. Veterans transitioning to civilian life, however, can struggle to find a new sense of purpose. 

“As a combat medic, I had a clear understanding of my duty and the purpose of the mission. But as a veteran seeking an internship for a construction management degree, I wasn’t sure how my military background applied or if I would even like the construction industry,” Webster explains. “I was lucky enough to meet a manager at Balfour Beatty who identified that my skillset was perfectly aligned with safety. It is very true. Both medics and safety professionals are constantly analyzing what can go wrong in every scenario. Connecting these dots gave me a new sense of purpose to serve those around me.”

Another benefit for veterans is belonging to a community. There is a similar sense of family in the construction industry. Webster believes it is the struggle to achieve that forms these bonds.

“In the military, you are with your team members 24/7. You see them go through hard times. You share their experiences,” Webster elaborates. “It’s the same thing with construction. When we hit a challenge on a project and work together to solve it, that’s when the family is formed.”

Continuing the Mission 

To attract a larger percentage of veterans, Balfour Beatty is actively seeking to identify both technically and non-technically trained veterans before they leave active military service and develop training programs that help them effectively transition to construction industry careers. 

Our efforts will include visiting military bases and working more closely with the VA Transition Assistance Program (TAP), recruitment firms that specialize in placing veterans, and veteran support organizations that help translate military resumes into civilian resumes. One of the most critical components of effective transition strategies is offering mental health resources and removing the stigma of using them.  

“Our industry is starving for leaders,” Webster states, “and the military provides us a continuous source of disciplined, committed professionals with the ability to quickly adapt and perform at a high level in the positions we need to fill.”

At Balfour Beatty, we believe that investing in recruiting more veterans will not only help these men and women find a place and sense of purpose but will also infuse the construction industry with diverse and talented leaders who will help our entire industry progress.