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Break new ground: Construction firm gets creative with hiring

To combat a labor shortage, Robins & Morton revamped its recruitment and training programs. It also started taking a chance on less-qualified applicants who showed potential.

  • By Brian Hartz
  • | 11:00 a.m. March 17, 2022
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Mark Wemple. Robins & Morton Recruitment Manager Liz Swack.
Mark Wemple. Robins & Morton Recruitment Manager Liz Swack.
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Prior to the pandemic, the construction industry was already facing a labor shortage. Even worse: as of October, the sector had 410,000 unfilled jobs nationwide, according to data compiled by the National Association of Home Builders. That’s a huge increase from October 2020, when there were 253,000 open positions.

Robins & Morton, a Birmingham, Alabama, construction firm that expanded to Tampa last year, has proactively decided the problem won’t go away anytime soon. In response, it’s completely overhauled the way it recruits, trains and develops staff members, implementing a program called True Builder.

“We launched the True Builder efforts last year,” says Liz Swack, the firm’s recruitment manager, who is based in the Tampa office. “We recognized the need to stand apart … to focus on a sense of purpose, values and shared passion.”

'We kept hearing our people refer to themselves as ‘true builders.’ We wanted to share that authentic message with potential new hires, our current team and our communities.' Liz Swack, recruitment manager at Robins & Morton

Robins & Morton, though, has been around for 75 years, and its clientele includes Tampa Bay health care powerhouses Advent Health and BayCare. Recent Tampa Bay area projects include the six-story BayCare St. Joseph’s Hospital patient tower and the six-story Taneja Center for Surgery at AdventHealth Tampa, as well as ongoing projects for AdventHealth and work at the Bay Pines VA hospital.

With such a steady stream of work in the health care and government sectors, why did Robins & Morton feel the need to shake up its HR processes, and why now?

Swack says the firm’s leaders spent months in focus groups and conversations with various teams and, in doing so, realized they could do a better job highlighting Robins & Morton’s connection with the communities in which it does business. And using those connections to recruit and retain employees. 

“We kept hearing our people refer to themselves as ‘true builders,’” she says. “We wanted to share that authentic message with potential new hires, our current team and our communities. True Builder taps into a shared passion, into something bigger that matters. That’s what we wanted to portray.”

Courtesy. Robins & Morton Project Engineer Brent Rigney.
Courtesy. Robins & Morton Project Engineer Brent Rigney.

Swack says Robins & Morton has seen an uptick in applications since August, when the True Builder program officially rolled out. The company, which also has offices in Miami and Orlando, has more than 2,000 employees but can’t seem to hire fast enough.

“We have been recruiting for almost every operations position due to growth,” Swack says.

The competition for talent has gotten so fierce Robins & Morton has had to look for diamonds in unusual places. 

One such gem is Brent Rigney — who just four years ago was homeless and living in his car. Originally from Virginia, Rigney, 26, wound up in Kansas City, where he worked as a bartender until business slowed down to the point where he could no longer pay his bills. He made his way to DeLand, where his parents live, and got a job with Robins & Morton as a laborer.

"When I got hired on,” Rigney says, “I didn't know the hierarchy of construction. I was seeing how the managers at a project taught other people and led everybody, and that made me want to do that.”

Today, Rigney lives in Brandon and is a project engineer at the firm. Although he joined Robins & Morton prior to the formal implementation of the True Builder program, he says the company was already strong in areas such as mentoring and networking.

Robins & Morton, Rigney says, “helped me by putting me in contact with people who want to see other people come up, and want to teach … it's an amazing thing. David Skipper, a project director in our company, I literally owe everything to him. He's been with me every step of the way.”

Rigney has provided leadership in the field for projects such as the $23.5 million expansion of the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Brandon Regional Hospital, as well as the $65 million expansion of Ocala Regional Medical Center. He says he takes particular pride in his work at health care facilities because his first child is due in March.

“It excites me to be that dad who points at stuff and can say, ‘You know, I helped build that,’” he says. “As cheesy as that might sound.”

Success stories like Rigney’s, as well as the True Builder program, have helped Robins & Morton stand out in a job market where applicants have more power than ever before. “The program has helped set us apart and shows how we're a little bit different,” Swack says. “It's been helpful with the current challenging hiring market, for sure.”


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