Summer 2018
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To Build Smart, Be Smart
CTDO Magazine

To Build Smart, Be Smart

Friday, June 15, 2018

Dave DeFilippo is fighting the war for talent in the construction industry.

Dave DeFilippo had the perfect glide path to his job as chief people and learning officer at Suffolk: He began his career in talent development as a high school teacher and track coach. That was 25 years ago, but his passion for helping people improve their performance never waned.


"If you can confidently run a six-minute mile, but you want to run a five-minute mile, how do you do that?" he likes to ask. His let's-make-a-good-thing-better approach fits well into the Suffolk culture of pushing boundaries constantly to do better work.

Suffolk is a large construction management firm—nearly $3.1 billion in annual revenue—which acts as an intermediary between developers who want to construct buildings and subcontractors in the building trades who will do the work. Suffolk's projects include hotels, hospitals, residential towers, and other large buildings in 10 cities, including Boston, Miami, Dallas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. The downtown skylines of these cities are dotted with Suffolk projects.

"We like to think of ourselves as much more than a contractor," DeFilippo says. "Our vision is to transform the construction experience by building smart. We believe in the power of innovation and people, and we empower our teams to think differently, work collaboratively, and execute flawlessly on the most complex and sophisticated projects in the country. In the end, our greatest asset is our innovative, creative, and high-performing people."

Having said that, DeFilippo admits that one of Suffolk's greatest challenges is the competition for talent in the construction industry. A survey by the Associated General Contractors of America predicts the U.S. construction industry will require 7.2 million workers by 2022. Business is booming, but the construction trades are not.

"Go to any major city and look at the skyline. You'll see lots of construction cranes and partially built towers. Given our growth trajectory and ambitious goals to transform the construction experience and disrupt our industry, finding enough capable people for our teams and our trade partners is a real challenge," DeFilippo explains.

Building smart

Suffolk's vision is to transform the construction industry by building smart, which DeFilippo describes as a mindset and a culture.

"Building smart is an ambitious, innovative approach to building. It's about always challenging the status quo and believing there's a better way. It's about pushing the boundaries of what is possible."

There are three pillars to the build smart vision: people, innovation, and community. People are number 1, says DeFilippo. "We understand that to achieve our vision, we need the very best people in the industry. So, identifying, recruiting, training, and retaining those high-performing people is critical to our business strategy.

"The only asset we have is our human capital. Our strength is in the standard operating procedures and methodologies we use to build smart, and that takes intellectual horsepower second to none."

Finding talent in a tight market

"The top talent goal for the company is to prepare Suffolk to be ready for continued growth," says DeFilippo. "It's hard to find talent in the construction industry and even harder to find people with the specialized technical skills required for our high-tech approach to construction."

Talent acquisition is a responsibility of the people and culture group, which he leads. Two programs specifically target college-age people: a summer internship program and the Career Start Program, a two-year, intensive rotation for 30 new college graduates each year. Their degrees may be in any discipline, from construction management to engineering to liberal arts. More important, says DeFilippo, is that they have balanced their efforts among academic and nonacademic pursuits, have had some leadership roles, and want to be successful.

Young people in the program rotate through the organization's main operational areas to gain understanding of various roles in construction, including estimator, scheduler, project manager, and superintendent.

The retention rate since the inception of the Career Start Program is 60 percent for participants, which is 4-6 percent higher than for other employees. "This program is probably the most important thing we do with respect to future talent for the firm. It feeds our talent pipeline," DeFilippo notes.

An added plus is that these young recruits come with levels of technical aptitude and comfort that are essential to Suffolk's high-tech construction methods.

Innovation and technology

Innovation is the second pillar of Suffolk's build smart strategy. It is where Suffolk adds value through its use of virtual design and construction processes to translate architects' drawings into 3-D models of the buildings they have designed for their clients. Then contractors use the models to construct the buildings.

"From a construction perspective, these models are often better than the drawings at revealing structural problems before building starts," DeFilippo explains. The models also give a high degree of predictability in the building process, and artificial intelligence algorithms can anticipate safety issues when a project is still just a hole in the ground.

In February 2018, Suffolk opened its first Smart Lab at its headquarters in Roxbury, Massachusetts. The lab features a 20-foot wall of computers and monitors where employees review financial data about projects and view live video feeds from construction sites around the United States. Suffolk uses the lab for design-phase planning of entire projects, which may last two or three years, depending on the size and complexity of the project.

In addition to the data wall, the lab includes a room where clients can don virtual reality goggles and step inside 3-D models of their planned projects. Clients can see their buildings from lobby to rooftop before they're built, which helps avoid costly change orders during the construction. "It's part of the value Suffolk adds in a very cost-conscious industry," says DeFilippo.

An important part of building smart at Suffolk is a company culture of vigilance about efficiency and quality. DeFilippo states, "We are all about how we can be more efficient on behalf of our clients, more effective with our scheduling, and more cost-effective by using our virtual tools to foresee problems before they happen."

DeFilippo also notes the sense of pride that employees have about making improvements. "In 2015, when I was new to the construction industry, I visited as many job sites as I could to get a feel for the business. I was blown away by the passion and pride that I saw at project sites. Nobody here is just punching a clock. I've seen employees point to buildings in the city skyline and say with pride, ‘I worked on that hotel. I helped build that hospital.'"

Development front and center

In addition to talent acquisition, the people and culture group is responsible for talent development across the company. These efforts focus on technical job skills, leadership skills, life skills, hands-on role rotations, and mentoring.

The Operations Role-Based Curriculum is a competency-based learning process that aligns employees with the company's career path in operations. Courses cover operations, professional skills such as communications and business writing, as well as CPR and first aid.


Two other development tools are the performance management and talent assessment processes, which measure and assesses employees semi-annually to ensure that their individual goals are aligned with the firm's priorities. "This process also tells us if we have the bench strength to meet our business goals," says DeFilippo.

A fourth pillar of talent development at Suffolk is the Trade Partner Diversity program. Trade partners are the subcontractors who work with Suffolk to construct buildings. To increase diversity among its trade partners, the firm offers educational sessions for minority contractors on how to partner with Suffolk.

The whole life cycle

The people and culture group has a chain of responsibilities that ranges from talent acquisition to bench strength across the company to late-career development. "Finding the right people for our culture and getting them to join the firm is important for us, but it's just as critical we develop them throughout their time with us," says DeFilippo.

Part of that effort involves developing consistent skills among managers distributed in cities across the United States. "We are very focused on identifying and reinforcing best practices for our managers and leaders throughout the firm, no matter what city they work in."

Another dimension of the talent life cycle is development of people for the leadership pipeline. The Career Start Program brings candidates in the door and sets them on a leadership path. Talent assessments and performance management processes keep high-potential employees on track. DeFilippo views these efforts as investments in Suffolk's future.

Drawing young employees into the company helps Suffolk as it moves aggressively into virtual design and construction and augmented reality. Reverse mentoring pairs seasoned construction professionals with tech-savvy young people just starting in the industry. The experienced team members share their knowledge of building while the younger employees spread their ease with technology.

Talent development from a teacher's perspective

One of DeFilippo's favorite programs is Suffolk's summer internship for college students who want to explore careers in big construction. During the 12-week program, interns work in specific departments, exploring many aspects of construction management. They work on project assignments, give presentations, and take advantage of mentoring and networking opportunities.

The program brings out DeFilippo's high school teacher persona. "When the summer program ends, I feel like the future is safe. It's a good reminder of why I got into this game. I left high school teaching to follow a career path in industry; I still love the process of education. Being able to do it in a corporation, where most people come to work wanting to do a good job and I'm able to help them do that, is the best of both worlds for me."

One issue that troubles him about the talent development profession in general, however, is the lack of learning science behind many products and practices in the field today. "After many years in this field, the importance of understanding the science that underpins the profession is clearer than ever to me. The proliferation of technologies that attempt to replace strong pedagogy with learning and design shortcuts worries me. I'm concerned that early-stage practitioners are missing the foundational building blocks of our profession, such as instructional design and well-tested theories of learning. … I'm concerned when I see products claiming to solve learning challenges with untested methods. And many are scaled up without sufficient vetting."

DeFilippo believes that training suppliers would gain from working closely with academics to test unproven hypotheses before they are perpetuated in the marketplace. He suggests that academics would benefit from close encounters with suppliers because of the opportunity to solve real-world business problems together. Both parties would be more grounded in reality, and that would be a good thing for the profession.

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Pat Galagan is the former editor-at-large for ATD. She retired in 2019 after a long career as a writer and editor with the association. She has covered all aspects of talent development and interviewed many business leaders and the CEOs of numerous Fortune 500 companies.

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