Brian White Sr. is kidding when he says he started his 33-year construction career by sending smoke signals.
The technology was a little more advanced than that for White, now a supervisor at commercial wall and ceiling contractor R.L. Reppert Inc. in Emmaus.
He joined Reppert after retiring from the U.S. Marine Corps in 1986. He said communication between projects sites and the office was originally handled via two-way radio – until cell phones came along. Plan changes, though, had to be driven from the office to workers, which sometimes led to days-long delays.
Today, White can use an iPad and is one of the longest-serving employees at Reppert, which celebrated its 45th anniversary in 2018 and has grown to become one of the largest commercial wall and ceiling contractors in the Lehigh Valley. He has adapted to a sea change in technology over the years as he turned what many consider a trade into a career.
“It wasn’t easy for me, I’m 53 and my computer was a pencil sharper,” White said. “But if you don’t advance with the times and the opposing company does, you lose production.”
Training a priority
Ensuring its employees are well versed in technology is just one-way Reppert has retained its many long-term staff members over the years in an industry that is struggling to recruit younger workers. The privately owned company, which promotes treating staff like family, also offers opportunities to take certification classes off-site as well as hosting training events for supervisors, project managers or those wishing to move up.
“Our training process is on the job and really is something that we work on daily,” said Ric Reppert Jr., the company’s president. “Educating our employees, whether management or not, is vital for the growth of the company. The industry is ever-changing and if a company does not focus on learning from the changes, they will struggle to survive.”
Reppert, 37, began with his father’s company in 1996 during the summer and inherited Ric Reppert Sr.’s appreciation of the artistry associated with pairing ceiling tiles and walls. The elder Reppert opened shop in 1973 out of his house with four part-time employees.
The company specializes in large-scale commercial construction such as hospitals, hotels, schools, assisted living and other commercial projects. Reppert currently has more than 75 employees, four of whom have worked for the company for 40 years and 15 who have been with the company over 30 years.
Finding the next generation
While Reppert has a strong reputation for retaining employees, it has been working on ways to recruit younger people who are more college focused.
R.L. Reppert Inc.
What They Do: Commercial wall and ceiling contractor
No. of Employees: 75-plus
“The baby boomer generation is retiring, and people are not coming in behind them,” Reppert said. “For every three retiring there may be only one coming in. On top of that construction, is booming. If we get busy the suppliers get busier, it trickles down through the whole industry.”
Recruitment efforts include attending career fairs at high schools and vocational technical schools, Reppert said, as well as working with organizations such as the Eastern Pennsylvania Chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, or ABC. ABC promotes the value of merit construction by providing training to workers and improving quality and safety of the industry.
“This has been a continual problem for all industries not requiring a college education for employment, though construction and manufacturing have been suffering more than most other industries,” said Vince Console, ABC’s vice president of workforce development.
Since it does not traditionally require a college degree, the construction field has been seen as one someone would enter if they weren’t successful in academics, Console said. He added that many younger workers aren’t interested in physically demanding work.
In order to reverse this trend, Console said ABC’s workforce development committee has created a Careers in Construction Alliance to partner with area schools to promote the benefits of jobs in commercial construction. He explained that many area schools have become ABC members and that the organization works with them through career fairs, classroom presentations and an annual construction fair. Summer camps, such as the Let’s Build Construction Camp for Girls, are also offered.
Technology that appeals to younger generations is also promoted as Console said advances have been made to utilize drones, satellite GPS surveying equipment, 3D scanners for project planning and estimating, as well as high-tech environmental materials and procedures that enable projects to be energy efficient and have less environmental impact.
“All this can be an attractive element for a young person wishing to have a hands-on approach to building better, safer and earth-friendly communities,” he said.
According to Reppert the efforts have been paying off as he has been receiving resumes for summer jobs. Veteran employees such as White have also helped as his son, Brian White Jr., has grown up watching his father call the company home and is currently advancing a career in the industry as a project manager.