Kristina Mahler is an industry amplifier and the founder of Steel Toe Consulting and Crew Collaborative.
Get ready for construction's workforce development revolution
With Kristina mahler
We’re excited to end this season with an episode that focuses on the future. We’re talking about workforce development today.
Kristina is an advocate for changing the way we think about building the future generation of construction professionals and she is at the forefront of what might be a workforce development revolution.
Tune in, or read the transcript below, to learn more about her outreach efforts and the organization she runs (transcript edited for length and clarity).
Good morning, Kristina! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Kristina: My name is Kristina Mahler. I run two organizations, one of which is Steel Toe Consulting. I consult with small business owners on how to get out of their own way. Get out of their comfort zone, and just grow their businesses, and lead more quality lives.
I also run Crew Collaborative. I’m the executive director. It's a non-profit and we are focused on empowering the next generation of construction people. We do this with some unique tactics which we'll probably get into. And then I'm also a single mom of two young kids, and I live out in the Twin Cities here in Minnesota.
Your passion for the construction industry is clear. Where does that passion come from? When and where did that start for you?
Kristina: So I have a unique, professional history. I didn't come up in construction. I went to Iowa State and after college I became a live concert producer. So I ran festivals and concerts and was a total undercover hippie. After that I moved back home to Minnesota and became a high-end jeweler. I was designing insane diamond rings. It was just super creative and I created quite a name for myself here in the local community.
About seven years into that, I was dating a tile setter, and realized that my sort of blunt, straightforward way of doing things always kind of hindered me a little bit in jewelry. Although some people appreciate honesty, people usually want to get into the fantasy. But I'm just straightforward, pragmatic, and I just enjoyed construction people.
I'd always had this stigma in my head of what construction people were supposed to be like and found more and more that that was not the case. So I made a huge leap, in about 2012. Or 2010 – roughly somewhere in there.
I left a really successful partnership doing jewelry and became the director of a membership over at the local home builders association. My passion has always been with the people working in the actual field. So with that job I was kind of still in the office space more than the field space. But I was always working hard to connect that kind of communication between leadership and people actually out in the field.
I was especially passionate after coming from more of a white collar industry. I'd always always had kind of, not always, but I had a lot of unpleasant experiences with men in those industries. In the boardrooms, in that kind of like safe area or whatever, and I found that the stigma surrounding construction workers was so off base because every site I was ever on it was very family oriented, very, teamwork oriented, and just the most respectful people I'd ever met, you know when comparing them to other experiences.
So that kind of fueled my passion more than anything.
You've had a very interesting path to get here, and you also have an interesting story to tell about what you're doing now!
You're doing talks across the country. You're speaking with a lot of different people at a lot of different levels within organizations.
Do you have a favorite topic that you kind of find yourself coming back to when you do these industry talks?
Kristina: Workforce development seems to be the topic that I always fall back on. It’s kind of like my comfort zone. Ever since I entered the industry, there has been such a struggle to get people into the industry and it's getting worse and worse. And as somebody coming in from the outside, a lot of the problems for workforce development and construction to me are super obvious. You know the problem lies within our lack of … what's the best way to say, our lack of responsibility?
We have a lot of leaders in construction who talk a lot about our workforce development problems and that nobody's coming into construction. They spend a lot of time blaming outside problems on it. Oh, millennials, don't want to work, or the government did this, or it's just impossible to do this. And at the end of the day, nobody's writing in to solve this problem for us.
There is nobody coming to our rescue. So it's frustrating to see an industry full of hard workers who are always solving their own problems. They’re working their asses off. You know every day on a job site. But they don't seem to take ownership of this workforce development problem.
So that's an area that I tend to dig into and I probably piss some people off, you know with the way I speak about it. But I also feel like if there's a problem then we just need to solve it as opposed to talking about it and talking doesn't do anything. And so when I'm speaking to business owners, and when I'm doing my speeches across the country, generally I'm talking about how can you take this problem and create some tangible solutions in your community?
Stop throwing money at marketing images. Stop trying to put a bandaid on it. Actually get out of your office and do something about it. So that's really my focus.
What's the response that you typically get when you are approaching people in that way?
I'm sure there are some people that are pretty receptive and are coming to you because they need and want to hear that and they know it, and then others maybe aren't expecting that.
Kristina: Generally, I'm writing about it, so the responses aren't as recognizable. But when I was giving a speech recently, there were about 250 people in the room, and people the age range of forty five to seventy five, I would say mostly white males for the most part, I'd say ninety percent – which is the industry.
And I said: you know what? Let's hear what you guys think about millennials and their work ethic. We had people raising their hands saying oh, they don't want to work. They're lazy. They just want to play video games. Blah, blah, blah. And so after they finished saying that, I asked them to raise their hand, if they had children who were considered millennials. And so you know, three quarters of the audience raised their hand. Because that's the generation right there.
I said well, this is your fault and left that hanging out there… Okay, this is our fault. You know if we're raising these kids and you really feel this way about their whole generation, then this is our fault because it only falls on the parents and the reactions I got ranged from this is not my fault, my kids don't need to work hard. My kids need to be wrapped in bubble wrap, type of thing.
That's just the mindset. Then a lot of people are kind of like, okay, that's something that I could take ownership for. And so it created at least a discussion, which is what I'm there for. I'm not necessarily there to just make people feel bad. I want people to think about their role in creating the problem, but also in how we can solve the problem.
This Is a problem that has been building for a while, and yes, it's getting a lot of air time now, but whatever people have been doing hasn’t been working. Can you share some of the advice that you give companies that are in a spot where they’re ready to take ownership of this.
How do you challenge them to chip away at workforce development issues?
Kristina: This really falls into the Crew Collaborative space. Crew is unique in the fact that we started as a women in construction organization and then we decided to kind of morph into a just workforce development organization because we've realized that a group of women standing in a room with a group of women does nothing in an industry that is ninety five percent male.
But we also know that the workforce needs women and minorities in order to solve our shortage. So we've really focused on unique ways of engaging with communities, and so through classroom talks, which is one thing that any business in any individual can get involved with, we put together groups of ten to twelve individuals, virtually on Zoom.
The way we communicate now, we do a presentation to middle schoolers and high schoolers, technical schools, whatever. Eventually, we will also do it for transitioning military and people looking at second careers. Basically we have each person, whether it's an operator or an architect or an engineer or project manager or a job supervisor, or a laborer, talk about how they got into that job.
The path that they took to get there, and what they make because people don't really understand that these people are making really good money. So when I talk to people, I say, hey, you can either present with this stuff or you can take what we've already built and connect us with the schools in your community, and we can involve you with that or we can't. You can just pass it off. But having that contact within your community and being present in your community as a positive role model, your business and whatever you're doing, is only going to increase people's interest in construction.
Showing up and just talking and showing pride in your industry. Even if you're at a barbecue, or you know a PTA meeting, but just talking to other parents about how awesome construction is and just really showing pride in what we do,
Construction, in general, it's a humble industry. We don't like to talk about what we do. We don't like to talk about how hard we work. But if there's ever a time to be loud and proud, it's now because we want people to know how much we love what we do, and how much money we can make, and how we affect the entire world.
Agreed. We work with a lot of passionate people and we’ve had them on the podcast. You can make a real impact in a short amount of time – like going to a classroom and being available for follow up questions from people.
All the people that you have working with you are volunteering their time to do this, correct?
Kristina: Yeah, and I would say that we're getting paid by the reactions that we are getting from students. You know like that's really the reward. The first classroom talk we did like. It was just kind of a weird idea I had during COVID. My local high school is down the road. I have all all these people who work in construction and I thought wouldn't it be cool if we could just present to a class?
So I reached out. We had ten people on the call. I had an operator. I had an engineer. I had a geologist, and you know all these different jobs in construction. I had some residential people in there too, and the kids of course are high schoolers so they didn't say anything the whole call and so we kind of were like well, crap, that was a waste of time.
But then afterwards, the feedback that we got from these students was like “I had never considered that as a career that it would be really cool to work in a machine all day, and be able to actually change the structure of the land in the community or to build something up and be able to to see it.” And then we also had a lot of people who said “I didn't realize how much I would actually use math after high school.”
That’s a great example. That’s a really practical way that math is used. Whether you take a college path and you get into a construction management program or become an engineer, and you get into it that way, or you start straight from high school, you're going to use all the skills that you've developed, but you're going to use them in really practical hands-on ways.
It's interesting that you saw positive responses so quickly. Are you still continuing to do these visits?
Kristina: Crew has, so we're launching it nationwide pretty soon. We have a whole committee working on it, and the goal will be to do like five classroom talks a month as we grow it out, and as we grow our database of presenters. Schools are the hard thing to get in touch with. Finding the right person at a school. But once we've built that out, we just really feel like it's going to just run itself in a lot of ways. We'll have a couple of people running it.
We also have our ambassador program, which is basically we want to develop thought leaders at every level of the construction industry, whether it's a laborer or a CEO because we feel like those are the people that if we teach them the best way to talk about construction as a career and make it so they're comfortable speaking about it, that they'll go on to their community, and like I said, just talk to anybody who will listen about construction
You’re right – some of this stuff is going to snowball. Where do you see Crew collaborative in five years?
Do you have any long term goals for the project that you're starting to chip away at?
Kristina: Yeah, in all reality, we're still a start-up right now. We just incorporated in December. We've been very lucky to have some really large organizations taking interest in what we're doing. We've got sponsorships for two years with Caterpillar and Toro and Case Equipment, and Shell Oil that are all on board. They've been fantastic in the fact that they've said: we know you don't have it all figured out right now, but we also know if anybody's going to do it that you guys are going to be the ones to figure it out. So we're lucky to have that patience from our sponsors.
What's been really cool is our board of directors, which is twenty people, basically across the country in all different sectors of the construction industry. We are all super passionate about how we're going to push this forward. We've got those two programs which will be doing their hard launches here in the first quarter of 2022. And then from there we're planning on really growing out like a mentorship program.
We want to have some sort of tie into a job board. At some point we want to have forums. We want to have mission partners, we want to put together a foundation where we can provide scholarships for people to do training. One thing I'll say and that I say any time I do a speech or podcast is if there are any organizations out there that are doing parallel work to what we are doing with Crew, I would encourage them to get in touch with me because we are working on what I would call like a revolution of combining the efforts of a lot of these organizations that are doing this similar mission.
But we're running parallel to each other and creating a lot of redundancy, and using the same resources. So I'm trying to talk with a few of these other organizations about how we can come together and create a larger mission as opposed to all kind of running at our own goals, and owning it. Because if we're just trying to own it ourselves, that's because of ego. If we're actually working on the mission of creating a stronger workforce for construction, then we should be doing it together.
That's a great point. My next question was going to be if people are interested whether it's volunteering their time or they have a good connection with a local high school they want to help you get connected to that, what are the best ways for people to reach out to you?
Kristina: Well, LinkedIn is great for me, Kristina Mahler, just like it says on whatever you're listening to right now. Otherwise you can find Crew at https://crewcollab.org. We are also pretty active on Instagram, which is where we started the whole thing. We are unique in the fact that it's every board member on our board who is an influencer in their certain space. It gives us quite a unique reach. So connect with us. Find us and let's do it.
We have a couple of questions that we've been asking all of our podcast guests this season.
The first one: what do you think is the biggest challenge for the industry right now?
Kristina: I think it's just that ownership of problems. We work hard physically and we work hard on improving the overall landscape, physical landscape of our country. But how do we improve the lives of our workers? How do we improve our workforce development efforts? And that all comes down to working together. I'm all about uncomfortable conversations and how to move things progressively.
What do you think the industry is going to look like in the next five years? Will there be big changes?
Kristina: Honestly, I feel like we are at the beginning of a revolution. I feel like there's a lot of people who are tired of the way that we've been looked at. When I say we, I acknowledge I don't work in the trenches. But I consider myself an industry amplifier. I'm a super fan. But I think there's a lot of people who are tired of the way that construction has been perceived, and that it looks like a non technology forward industry when really we are pretty hardcore into technology.
I think that's just going to continue to grow. But I think it's going to be fantastic. Just talking this morning, actually with some of the people from ConExpo, which a lot of people know what ConExpo is. The stuff that they have on their radar for 2023 really says a lot to me about what's happening in the industry and what's coming next. So I'm excited.
If you could give one piece of advice to somebody that's thinking about a career in construction, what would you tell them?
Kristina: Do it. I mean, find something that you're passionate about then don't go into construction if you're not passionate about construction, but like there are so many different things you can do. Whether it's marketing or administrative work, or welding or woodworking or architecture, there's so many different creative things you can do. But there's also lot of things in technology that you can do, And you know these kids are super good at video games and actually, that's going to be a really great skill moving forward for a lot of things based in construction. So I would say, just do it and be open to the idea of trying something outside the box.
I completely agree with you on that point. I think a lot of the skill sets that younger generations have right now that people sometimes have a hard time viewing as a skill set, like comfort with technology, but those things translate so well. Just an inherent knowledge and comfortability with the tools and, and that makes it really easy to adapt.
Where do you go for industry insights?
Kristina: I really like to pull from the people I know that are doing the work. So we've created quite a community on LinkedIn and on Instagram of people that you can just literally ask a question to. I'm big on just putting questions out there and seeing what I get, as far as an answer goes. So I love utilizing my network that I've built.
I actually don't listen to a lot of podcasts. I don't read a lot of industry news. I really just prefer to go directly to the source.
If you could see anybody else interviewed on this podcast who would you pick?
Kristina: I would love to see Jennifer Todd on here. She owns IMS Contractors, and then another friend of mine, Ryan Chrisman. He is a grader and he has some really great insight as to what needs to change in the industry. And then another friend of mine named Alicia Runsell, who runs Brock's Enterprises out of Pennsylvania, would be fantastic
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