Transforming Culture: Doing Dirt Work Better to Build a Positive Culture in Construction

The construction industry is at a pivotal moment — nurturing a robust culture is no longer just a desire, but rather a strategic imperative that is essential for attracting and retaining a dynamic workforce.

Today, employees are seeking more than just a job and crave a culture that not only values them, but also provides a haven of safety and security in the workplace.

Despite the critical importance of culture, there remains a pervasive uncertainty about how to take actionable and intentional steps to catalyze thetransformative change that the industry urgently needs.

DW Companies, LLC, an excavation contractor based in Cambridge, MN, finds that their commitment to workforce talent acquisition, retention, and profit-building is more than just doing dirt work better.

This article delves into the multifaceted strategies employed by DW Companies that have yielded remarkable results in their short yet impactful journey.

The Labor Crisis

The construction industry is facing a severe shortage of skilled and unskilled labor. Currently, one-third of the construction workforce is within 10 years of retirement,1 and the industry is lacking workers who are willing to fill those positions and learn the crafts. The Associated Builders and Contractors reported in 2023 that “the construction industry will need to attract an estimated 546,000 additional workers on top of the normal pace of hiring in 2023 to meet the demand for labor.”2

Some believe that the culture of the industry is a major determinate of why people are not choosing to work in construction.

In order to make construction a desirable career path, the industry’s culture will need to be transformed to attract talent — specifically the next generation. But to attract this new talent, the focus must shift into areas that align with this new generation’s values.

From Toxic Culture to Progressive Success

After being tired of experiencing the toxic culture and top-down environment at another company, five employees decided to walk. They made it their mission to prove that a company can be successful by putting people before profits and treating members of their team as professionals, and so DW Companies was started in 2020.

Putting People First

Owners Steve Strandlund, Jr. and Kayti Bjorklund-Strandlund make sure that investing in their people is one of the company’s top priorities. “There was a point in time at my previous employer where we had no staff and a yard full of equipment that sat,” said Steve. “It was at that moment where I recognized that if I have no one to run the equipment, we have no business. It was the people I needed to prioritize.”

Kayti, a former educator and educational coach, joined the dirt world to help support Steve and his new mission. She had only one request: to look at the careers at DW Companies as professional careers complete with professional development, coaching conversations, and a strong mentorship program similar to the educational world she knew for 14 years.

This became the company’s foundation.

Breaking Down Traditional Job Titles

One of the first things that DW Companies did was eliminate the use of job titles. Long gone were superintendents, forepersons, and apprentices and, along with that, the attitudes and entitlements that accompanied them.

All employees hold the title of “team member,” and depending on the project or site, a revolving team lead is determined based solely on the strengths and professional goals of the team members.

Kayti offered some perspective on why this works: “When we rotate team leads, we are able to see others rise up and share their expertise in an area that they shine and are confident in. This would rarely happen if we just kept the same team lead for every project. It also offers leadership opportunities for those who are seeking professional growth.

“Not only does it offer leadership opportunities, but it evens out the playing field. No one has an ‘I’m too good for that’ attitude and everyone chips in where it’s needed to get the job done efficiently for our contractors. This saves them time and money over and over again because we eliminate so much wasted wait time.”

Walking the Talk: A Commitment to Culture

Recruiting & Hiring

As DW Companies grew, they saw the importance of walking the talk when it came to company culture as a way to show their commitment to doing things differently and supporting change in the industry. This started with recruiting and hiring people.

“Whenever we hire someone for our team, we make sure other team members are involved in the application vetting and interview process. Post interview, we discuss whether someone would be a good fit for our company. We want to ensure that we are hiring people who are in alignment with our company’s values both personally and professionally. We also want to make sure that, for our current employees who are going to be working alongside them and mentoring them, they are a good fit for them too,” said Kayti.

GC Selection Process

Another way the company walks the culture talk is by choosing to work with GCs whose values align with DW Companies’ values. “We have chosen to walk away from contractors and many dollars because our crews weren’t treated properly onsite,” said Kayti. “This shows our crews that we are serious about taking care of them and serious about culture.” This commitment demonstrates dedication to putting people before profits.

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