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Business Observer Friday, Mar. 15, 2019 2 months ago

Mind the gap: Construction firm wins by combining youth, experience

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Suffolk has found a way to exploit the unique talents and mindsets of different generations.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

The American labor force is in a unique state, with four — some might argue five — distinct generations working alongside each other, and it’s commonly thought the two largest generational cohorts, baby boomers and millennials, don’t share the same values and goals and thus struggle to gel in the office.

But Suffolk Construction Co., a Boston-based national builder with a large presence in the region, from Tampa to Estero, has turned that thinking on its head with an innovative reverse mentoring program — an approach to bridging the so-called generation gap. It’s not a formalized training program, per se, but participants say Suffolk management purposefully sets up teams that naturally allow grizzled veterans to learn from tech-savvy up-and-comers — and vice versa.

It’s also a concept that could easily apply to just about any business in any industry, because of technology’s profound influence on how millennials and generation Z learn and interact with the world around them.

“When you see a young person who has [Kraziem’s] drive, that changes your attitude. She’s made a believer out of me.” Jeff Riley, Suffolk Construction Co. general superintendent

“You create a bond,” says Suffolk general superintendent Jeff Riley, 64, of his work relationship with 29-year-old assistant project manager Samira Kraziem, who’s been helping him get more comfortable with technology while he imparts his self-described “old school” site supervisory experience to her so she can take up the mantle of leadership one day. “I tell her all the time that if I live long enough, I’ll be working for her," he says. "There’s no doubt about that.”

Riley and Kraziem are part of Suffolk’s Tampa team, where its projects include Manor Riverwalk, an eight-story, 400-unit luxury apartment building at 202 S. Parker St., right across the Hillsborough River from downtown Tampa. The project broke ground in August 2017 and Riley says Kraziem would accompany him and his field team on concrete-pouring sessions in the middle of the night.

“There’s a young lady beside me at three o’clock in the morning, out there pouring concrete, asking me lots of questions,” he says. “That meant something to me, to have a young person that wants to learn so badly that she would be here that early … that willingness to learn is what it’s all about.”

Giving young workers a boost also helps overcome the skilled labor shortage that’s plagued contractors and construction companies. And putting emphasis on the professional development of millennial women like Kraziem helps builders tap into a large slice of the labor pool that traditionally hasn’t been closely associated with construction.

“Suffolk, especially, has done a great job of fighting that outdated mindset,” says Kraziem. “We have a lot of women who are taking on leadership roles, more and more, in all facets of the company. We’re paving the way for the future of construction.”

Both Riley and Kraziem appreciate what they call Suffolk’s “build smart” approach to its business. It starts with assembling high-performance teams made up of people who not only complement each other when it comes to skills, but also like each other and want to learn from each other.

Riley, in particular, says he has completely changed his way of thinking about younger, millennial workers. “They are super smart,” he says. “Being tech-savvy, that’s where this business is going. And when you see a young person who has [Kraziem’s] drive, that changes your attitude. She’s made a believer out of me.”

Similarly, Kraziem, with Suffolk for about a year and half, has developed a newfound respect for the vast amounts of hard-earned tricks of the trade found among construction veterans like Riley, who came of age in a pre-digital world.

“He has the knowledge and experience that would otherwise take me a lifetime to gain and achieve,” she says. “Having this reverse-mentoring dynamic has allowed me to expedite that process and gain that sort of knowledge much earlier on in my career.”

The type of relationship she enjoys with Riley, she adds, “makes for stronger people and stronger teams.”

Riley, meanwhile, enjoys feeling more confident with technology — essential if he wants to extend his career: “I have to keep up.” Kraziem, he says, has been a godsend in terms of his comfort level with Suffolk’s computer network, and she’s helped him adjust to using mobile devices like iPads in the field instead of pen and paper. “She's teaching me," he says, "at the same time I'm teaching her."

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