By Dusty Weis (a Millennial), Association of Equipment Manufacturers

Marijuana and the millennial generation.

One has an exaggerated reputation as a major cause of irresponsibility, laziness and shortened attention spans. Its presence in the workforce continues to vex employers across every sector of the economy.

And the other is a drug.

Whether either topic is deserving of the dramatic, negative reputation it bears is beside the point for Keith Reester, who will be presenting about best practices for dealing with these and other workforce challenges at the World of Asphalt (WOA) trade show this spring. Speaking as a millennial myself, I find it particularly refreshing that he doesn't paint my generation as if we were some kind of horrific alien species that must be appeased in the workplace.

But Reester, a workforce development expert and leadership consultant with deep experience in the asphalt, paving and aggregates industry, tells me that millennials and marijuana are the top two issues identified in a survey he conducted of paving companies across the U.S. about the workforce challenges they face. The presentation of his survey's conclusions is just one of many education sessions on topics including people, paving, plants, business management and technology that are scheduled for WOA’s three-day run, from March 6-8 in Houston, TX.

“We’re going to take a look at what some of the best practices are to recruit and retain people on your team,” Reester says. “What are best in class companies doing to separate themselves from the pack?”

Across the board, Reester says companies that excel at recruiting and retaining their employees have one thing universally in common—they treat their human resources efforts as an integral part of their comprehensive corporate strategy.

“We always hear that people are our greatest resource. Why then wouldn’t most companies have a strategic plan for their greatest resource?” Reester asks. “That’s what’s missing in many operations.”

While Reester’s presentation at WOA will review the findings of his survey in detail, it’s worth exploring some of the implications in advance.

Regardless of how you feel about them, you’d better figure out how to attract and retain millennials in your workforce.

After all, for manufacturers and contractors alike, retiring baby boomers are leaving positions that must be filled, and a tight labor market means it’s unusually difficult to find skilled labor. But Reester says those issues are exacerbated by the fact that some employers have actually done very little to challenge the stereotypes associated with working in the paving industry.

“What I see when I look at the survey data is an industry that’s still a little bit old school,” Reester says. “They’re not well-adapted to attracting younger employees.”

As a cohort, millennials are more likely to be drawn to job where they feel like they’re making a difference and there’s room to grow. In order to challenge some of the misconceptions about a career in paving, Reester says that contractors and manufacturers should place a greater emphasis on the importance of infrastructure to society and offer more opportunities for on-the-job learning and advancement.

Of course, stereotypes run both ways, and some employers might harbor misperceptions about the millennial generation's work ethic. But while there are some appreciable differences in the expectations and experience that millennials bring to the jobsite, some of the ire focused on workers born between 1982 and 2000 has its roots in old-fashioned, curmudgeonly youth-bashing.

“What we often hear is the common complaint that they don’t have a work ethic,” Reester says. “Well, they’ve said the same thing about every generation at one point or another. Fifty years ago, baby boomers were getting hassled on the jobsite for being inexperienced and lazy, too.”

Reester says most millennials show up for work motivated and eager to learn—which is good, because for a growing number of them, a foray into paving represents the first job they’ve ever had. According to Reester’s survey of employers in the paving industry, 75 percent of new hires do not have any experience in the field.

“That really has to inform how we bring people on board at our companies, and how we develop new hires,” Reester says. “We can’t make the assumption that new hires have the background knowledge or the soft skills to succeed at work, and employers should make sure that workplace expectations especially are communicated to new hires.”

As an intergenerational cultural phenomenon and a workforce issue, marijuana is too big for employers to simply ignore.

Even before states and local governments across the country started legalizing marijuana for recreational or medical use, it was having an impact on hiring and recruiting. Companies that require potential employees to be pre-screened for drug use learned to expect a fair number of applicants who would wash out of the hiring process as a result.

But now that eight states have legalized marijuana, and many more have sanctioned its use for medical purposes, Reester says the issue has been pushed to the forefront.

In fact, in Reester’s survey of employers in the paving industry, marijuana was identified as a workplace challenge by more employers than any other issue. More than 65 percent of the employers he talked to said that marijuana was having an impact on their workforce, and Reester says employers who ignore the issue do so to their own detriment.

“You have to be clear about what your expectations are for your employees, and reinforce that up front,” Reester says. “That’s a candid conversation that has to happen ahead of time at a leadership level, but there’s still a generational taboo that’s tied to that.”

Many employers have a vested safety interest in continuing to enforce their marijuana policies, Reester says, especially on job sites where employees work with heavy equipment. But he says employers are better served if their policies are evaluated with an eye toward their impact on the workforce, and structured in such a manner that the difficult decisions are made ahead of time.

“For instance, what do you do if you have a high-performing employee who turns up high?” Reester asks. “That’s when the rubber hits the road. Do you use an intervention strategy, or do you have zero tolerance?”

Part of the problem, Reester says, is that modern drug tests don’t indicate whether a person is currently under the influence of marijuana; they only indicate that the person has used marijuana sometime in the last month or more. Until there is a test created that’s as convenient, instant and accurate as a roadside sobriety test for alcohol, Reester says the issue will continue to be a problem.

Finally, remember that your current employees are your top recruiting resource.

In his survey, Reester says he asked paving companies to break down their new hires by the recruitment methods that were used to find them. He notes that, across the industry, employee referrals outpaced every other category by a rate of 2:1 or greater, even in union shops.

This allows companies that really invest in their people to gain a competitive edge in recruiting against their competition.

“If we’re not recruiting our own employees to reach out to potential employees on our behalf, we’re really missing an opportunity,” Reester says. “And on top of that, how we treat our employees, and how our work environment and corporate culture treats them, really reflects on whether those people are good recruiters for us.”

In surveying companies nationwide, Reester found a handful of companies that stood above the rest in terms of recruiting and retaining employees. Those companies invariably offered the most competitive compensation and benefits packages, including recruitment incentive bonuses for employees who referred a new hire, flexible benefits packages that offer coverage even during temporary or seasonal layoffs, and opportunities to learn and advance on the job.

But such employers were the exception, not the rule.

“It was staggering to me that there was a huge chunk of them who just said, ‘Well, we give them the usual benefits,’” Reester says. “If that’s what you’re thinking is going to differentiate you in the marketplace, well, it’s not.”

No paving company worth its salt would attempt a project or bid on a contract without a carefully-vetted plan in place. Accordingly, Reester says that companies with foresight will recognize their human resources needs as yet another business-critical operation, and invest the attention-to-detail, creativity and effort needed to succeed.


Make plans to attend Keith Reester’s education session, The New Workforce, at 2:00 p.m. on Tuesday, March 6 at the World of Asphalt trade show and conference in Houston, TX. Register now to reserve your spot at the show, or learn more about the other education sessions scheduled from Tuesday, March 6 through Thursday, March 8.

Dusty Weis is AEM’s strategic communications manager, covering the impact that new and emerging trends and technologies will have on the construction, agriculture and manufacturing sectors. Email him at or follow him on Twitter @dustyweis.