Employee mentorship programs: good for employees, good for capital projects

Investing in employees and giving them full opportunities to grow improves hiring and retention rates — and improves critical business results, such as during construction projects

By Brian Gallagher September 21, 2023

Mentorship insights

  • There are many needs — and payoffs — that drive mentorship programs; explore one company’s success here.

  • Learn how to structure a mentorship program to secure business, especially during a building expansion or construction project.

Mentorship programs are increasingly common in many companies. Businesses have found that such programs improve their hiring and retention rates as well as improve critical business results. For construction companies working on capital projects like manufacturing facilities, employee mentorship programs offer a path to continuous improvement and translate into better project outcomes for owners.

Capital projects are complex, and team members — particularly engineers — have many responsibilities, from performing administrative tasks to solving constructability issues in the field. They are the “glue” for any successful project, so it is important for construction firms to recruit skilled candidates and actively work to build strong project teams.

Why mentorship programs are important

Considering the severe workforce shortage that has plagued the construction industry for years, contractor company officials may feel relieved just to usher new hires in the door. However, there is more to building a team than simply having people show up in the office or on a jobsite. Construction companies must ensure individuals have appropriate skills and experience, take a unified approach to their work and commit to the company over the long term. An employee mentorship programs is the best strategy for accomplishing these goals.

Students who earn a degree in construction management or engineering leave school with solid foundational knowledge. Typically, however, they must build on those foundations once they choose a career path. By starting formalized mentoring programs, many employers can help new hires grow into careers with sharper skills and professional maturity.

For employees, structured mentoring during their early career adds value during a vulnerable time. As the least experienced members of the construction team, exposure to senior colleagues, along with gaining an understanding of the company framework, is invaluable. Mentees gain an early understanding of the expectations placed on them in their current role as well as the career paths that are open to them. Mentees also gain a clear picture of how they fit into project teams and how those teams, in turn, fit into overall project execution. Accomplishing all this in a setting that has a “family” feel can reduce new-employee stress.

When it comes to mentorship programs, the learning is not all one-way. Mentors often can cite occasions when the input of a mentee helped provide a fresh perspective on a given situation, leading to more creative problem-solving. Furthermore, mentorship programs give mentees the opportunity to request exposure to various activities, allowing them to identify and address their own weaknesses as well as proactively forge a career path.

Mentorship programs also enhance mentees’ critical interpersonal skills. Program participants build confidence from hearing the stories of seasoned employees and hone their abilities to work together, influence others and show respect for one another.

From the perspective of the construction company and their clients, stronger teams offer better overall performance. By developing a talent pipeline within the company as opposed to relying solely on recruiting efforts, retention rates are improved and problems associated with high turnover are greatly reduced.

Without a mentorship program, managers can get caught up training new hires on narrow job-related tasks versus adopting a consistent, long-view approach. Falling into this trap eventually compromises the collective knowledge of the team. Formalized programs keep big-picture goals top-of-mind.

The most beneficial way a mentorship program translates to successful project outcomes is that employees receive substantially more training and guidance outside of the jobsite than they otherwise would. Complex capital projects benefit from having experienced, thoroughly trained personnel performing every task.

Mentorship programs provide the tools and education necessary to assure critical learning does not wait to happen on the jobsite. The programs also ensure that, regardless of the individuals making up a given project team, that team is qualified and project outcomes will be similar.

The structure of a mentorship program

Graycor Industrial Constructors, a Gold Shovel Standard-certified contractor, has woven its recruitment and retention efforts into the larger company culture through its engineer mentor committees (EMC). The EMC program was developed nearly 20 years ago to integrate new engineers into the Graycor family.

Graycor’s committees are composed of project managers, estimators and other leaders and have three primary goals: to recruit, train and retain. All committee members either graduated from the mentoring program themselves or have in-depth experience mentoring young engineers. Newly hired engineers typically spend 18 to 36 months in the EMC program before being considered for promotion to a new position. Those who complete the program are then given the opportunity to serve on the EMC and mentor new engineers; thus, the cycle of building the talent pipeline continues.

EMC activities give mentees opportunities to engage with peers and be part of a company-level team outside everyday engagements. By opening lines of communication and enjoying team bonding events together, individuals hone their strengths, and the overall group becomes stronger.

The support employees get through a structured program has a psychological benefit as well because employees understand they are in a positive environment and are part of an organization that has growth culture. This reaffirms their choice in coming to work for the company. Having an entire committee of mentors available as resources communicates to new hires that they have many people they can reach out to for help or advice beyond their manager. This not only provides emotional support to mentees, but also can expedite learning by introducing them to key resources in the company.

Figure 1: Mentorship programs improve critical business results and hiring and retention rates.
Courtesy: Graycor

Mentees prepare for their roles at Graycor by gaining exposure to different facets of the business. The EMC program includes a rotation among projects and departments in the company. Rotations give program participants an opportunity to develop relationships with key managers and leaders and orients them toward the roles that get them excited and engaged.

For example, most new engineers fully intend to pursue the project management path when they are hired by a construction firm. Through a rotation program, they might discover they would rather pursue a career in estimating, project management, safety, quality or business development — or that they would rather work as a construction manager. Another benefit is that the EMC leads employees to have a strong professional support network throughout their careers — another contributor to longevity and retention.

A company’s mentorship committee should mirror its culture and core values and provide a setting where those values can be communicated to new hires. A mentorship program offers an ideal way for a company to put leadership ideals into practice because mentorship positions require commitment, discipline and a strong desire to want to coach.

At Graycor, there is a direct match between core values and action steps taken by the EMC. To promote the company value of taking a long-term perspective, for example, the EMC follows through on day-to-day interactions with new hires that will elevate the business in years to come. Consistency is an important part of this goal; the program does not have any “off” years, even during difficult periods, because keeping the talent pipeline full and building employee competencies are always good long-term investments.

To prioritize relationships, the EMCs hold social events and small group breakouts to facilitate open communication. Company leadership participates extensively in all EMC events — even competitively. Furthermore, EMC leaders recognize that listening is as important as talking. Sometimes, what a mentee needs most is a sounding board. Mentors also understand that no one person, regardless of their position in the hierarchy, has all the answers.

To provide value to clients, EMCs ensure all mentees achieve competency on critical capabilities. Hands-on training is a key activity. For example, Graycor has conducted training seminars at its fabrication shops and yards. Topics included lift planning, equipment operation, and an overview of the shop and its capabilities. Graycor also makes sure to mix in a little fun with the teaching sessions. For example, one seminar included classroom instruction on the basic features of Primavera P6 Critical Path Method scheduling, followed by an outing of paintball.

Aligning with Graycor’s core value of achieving continuous improvement, EMC members avoid complacency, taking the attitude that the program can be advanced to be even more successful for each new hire. EMC mentors recognize when individual mentees need to be coached and understand how to help them extend their personal development beyond their present project needs. Additionally, the comparatively low-stakes setting of mentorship sessions provide opportunities for honest conversations and feedback, which can multiply occasions for growth and teaching.

It makes intuitive sense that engaged, well-trained employees contribute to better project outcomes — but beyond intuition, real-world measures bear this out. Employees who have participated in a mentorship program demonstrate a better ability to identify risks, including safety, quality and schedule risks, and are able to deploy mitigation steps faster.

Construction companies that have mentorship programs develop not only construction leaders, but business leaders. The programs help employees become well-rounded and gain a broader understanding of the company’s operations. They also offer grounding in various business siloes; program seminars often include overviews of scheduling, cost software, project management, quantity takeoff and more.

A strong business is composed of strong people. But investing in people and giving them full opportunities to grow does not happen without careful, consistent attention. Formalized mentorship programs are the solution.