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Hardcore Training Pays Off Big Time

April 01, 2009 |

When it comes to employee training and development, few AEC firms can say they rank with the likes of Microsoft, KPMG, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and other Fortune 500 giants. Boston-based contractor Suffolk Construction has proudly laid claim to that distinction for two straight years, ranking in Training magazine's annual Training Top 125 in both 2008 (#40) and 2009 (#44).

The recognition honors the 935-employee firm not only for its overall commitment to employee training and development, but also for its creativity, innovation, and willingness to go the extra mile to develop its people. Suffolk's training budget is equal to 3% of payroll, and the company utilizes its most experienced and knowledgeable staff members to serve as instructors for its customized curricula.

Suffolk Construction often looks outside the industry for expertise on specific training topics, especially "soft skills" like customer service and communications. Well-known public speaking and communications consultant Dale DeLetis coaches Suffolk employees on the art of business communications, while a former manager of the Four Seasons Hotel Boston created the company's class on superior customer service. To help stay ahead of the green building curve, the company in early 2008 partnered with the University of Florida's TREEO Center to deliver intensive LEED AP prep courses to employees.

For CEO John Fish, investing in such a robust professional and personal development program simply makes good business sense. "It's hard to remember when learning and development were not a core part of our company," says Fish, who founded the company in 1982. "Our focus on hiring people who share our core values and then training them to become the very best construction professionals in the industry is paying huge dividends for us, especially during these challenging economic times when having a competitive advantage is so important."

Every Suffolk employee, from program managers and project superintendents to administrative assistants and accountants, is required to participate in the company's Red & Blue University—the core of the company's employee training and development initiative. The university offers more than 200 courses annually across seven main office locations, covering a menu of key subjects, including technical, systems, and safety training, as well as soft skills.

Two years ago, recognizing the need to bolster recruiting efforts and develop new hires, Suffolk launched Career Start, a program that provides recent college graduates with an impressive two years' worth of hands-on training in each of the company's main operational areas: project management, field operations, and estimating. New employees spend about eight months working in each area, where their skills and competencies are identified and nurtured with the help of a personal mentor.

Fish considers Career Start a huge success so far, pointing to one of its first graduates, project manager Scott Potter, as proof of the program's effectiveness.

"Scott was introduced to Suffolk through the Career Start program," says Fish. "He eventually came out of the program wanting to pursue a career as a project manager, and today he is exceeding everyone's expectations. He is currently managing a very complicated hotel interior renovation project in Boston that has an incredibly complex phasing and sequencing plan. And he's doing an incredible job."

Potter is one of 60 Suffolk employees who have completed the Career Start program since its inception; 40 more are currently enrolled. Fish expects that number to grow exponentially once the scope of Career Start is expanded to include non-construction-related positions—an initiative that is currently in the works. "Soon, all new employees will be able to participate in this exciting program, including those in accounting, marketing, and human resources," says Fish.

Other training initiatives include a mentor program for all new hires and a tuition reimbursement program.


A Foundation of Social Responsibility

When it comes to giving back to the community, Suffolk Construction's CEO John Fish likes to lead by example. He sits on numerous charitable boards that focus on improving the lives of children and families—including the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston, the Catholic Schools Foundation, and the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City—and recently established the nonprofit Red & Blue Foundation to further channel Suffolk's community and charitable efforts.

"I tell our clients that Suffolk doesn't just build buildings, we build relationships and communities," says Fish. "Giving back to others who are less fortunate has always been at the core of our company's beliefs and principles."

This culture has led to the creation of numerous Suffolk-led charity events. The company's Florida division, for instance, sponsors an annual golf tournament to raise money for foster children and wounded veterans. The division also hosts an annual auction and gala to support a group that cares for and treats abused, abandoned, and neglected children.

"'To whom much is given, much is expected.' I really believe that to be true," says Fish.
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