Interview 3: Terry Westfahl

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Terry Westfahl is the Vice President of Human Resources at Graef.

Tim: What’s your background in dealing with and what’s your role? What do you do?

Terry: I have been in human resources for 30 years. I’ve worked in a number of different industries, but in the

last 15 years I have been, primarily engineering and architectural areas. I work with employees from a standpoint of finding them, courting them, bringing them on board, and then maintaining, developing, and having a relationship with them. And during that time I have to make sure that we are all on the same page.

Tim: There’s a lot of debate right now that technology is destroying jobs. Some folks are saying that we’re going to see emergence of new kinds of jobs. What’s your opinion on that? In the engineering space, are more jobs being created?

Terry: I think that in the long run technology is helping us be smarter and will make us more able to work on compelling problems versus the churning, day-to-day problems. I think in this millennia is going to be about complex problems such as how do we make sure there is good drinking water and how infrastructure is going to be maintained—those kinds of things instead of the more mundane things that employees have been dealing with in the past.

Tim: Do you think in the engineering and architectural space the very mathematical, very logical jobs are going to be automated or has that already happened?

Terry: I think that the different CAD programs have taken a lot of the design work out of something that we used to spend a lot of time on. In each decade I have seen another layer of tools that doesn’t require as much human work, but at some point I don’t think it’s always going to be the case. At some point we alway need the higher intellect of the human brain.

Tim: What skills do you see is being the resilient ones, the ones that are going to move forward that you’re looking for assuming math, science, all that’s there.

Terry: Creativity, problem solving outside of the box, collaboration, and foresight. You normally don’t think of engineers as creative individuals. But in the complex world, the people that can solve problems in creative way are the ones that are going to be the differentiators.

Tim: Work is evolving. You’ve been in the human resources space for a while so you’ve got a perspective on this. There’s a lot discussion about how do we handle this contingent workforce, but companies have been handling it for a long time in various ways. Is the hype around it warranted? Is there a sea change happening now? Or is this something that’s been in the mix for a long time?

Terry: I think that it has been in the mix for a long time. I think what scares people is that there is this new way of thinking about it that is more expansive than it has been in the past. Nnow the conversation around this is the new normal. We could have up to 50%, 60%, 70% of our employees that are contingent workers and that’s scary. But when you think about the pros that come along with that it really becomes more exciting because skill sets are going to need to change as a manager. The people that you’re going to be employing are going to be more creative, better at problem solving, and more collaborative rather than this employee who doesn’t get along with that employee because they’re so stressed out because they’re doing stuff they don’t like to do. So many people come into work because they have to. In this new space it feels as though people are designing their work-life with more intention. There’s an element of excitement from an HR perspective that you get to help create this work-life that’s exciting and passionate for employee versus trying to engage them, retain them, and motivate them. I think engagement, retention, and motivation will begin to come naturally out of this new way of thinking about contingent workers.

Tim: I really like what you said about helping design employees’ work life-with them. That’s a compelling thought that  as someone in HR, you role is to help workers design their work-life. What’s has struck you recently that has you thinking, “I need to start paying attention to contingent work and the way that work is changing.”?

Terry: We always talk about the challenge of finding enough engineers for the future, and the future is getting closer and closer. The baby boomers are going to be retiring more and more rapidly, and millennials are coming in, and they need something different than what we’ve offered in the past. There’s no ignoring it anymore. There’s no putting our head in the sand anymore. We have to do something or we won’t survive. I want to be a survivor, a thriver, and I think those that push their worry about this to next year are going to be left behind.

Tim: You’re starting to prepare for the change in work and trying to integrate it into the business side.

Terry: Right. If we wait and start worrying about the problem when we no longer have the engineers it’s already too late. We have to look at all the possible pipelines, and contingent work is going to be a big pipeline.

Tim: How do workers need to think about this differently? You working in an engineering company. Being an engineer is a good job. What should workers be doing to make themselves attractive over the long-term? Whether they are contingent or employed, how should they be thinking differently?

Terry: I always go back to collaboration. That is really a skill set that I think is going to determine whether or not you’re someone that the employer leans on or if you’re someone that we have to develop. The ability to collaborate, listen to others, figure out how to make the solution work is really important. The basic things like math skills, the reading skills are definitely important too, but the ability to collaborate is really where I think employees and people who are graduating need to focus. We all want to do it our way, but in this global world that we’re living in, collaboration is the biggest skill.

Tim: This is interesting considering the major attention being given to STEM with the emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math. Yet we’ve talked a lot about about creativity, problem-solving,  and collaboration. In certain ways, this is a liberal arts emphasis that is emerging.

Terry: Right. And when you look at who is getting promoted up through the ranks, they’re technically sound, but they are also the ones that are able to bring people together and solve problems. They can collaborate and are creative. I never really put those two things together, but you’re right in that it’s a liberal arts kind of skill set. These skills are often considered to be the soft skills, but they are really hard in that they are measurable, they increase productivity, and they reduce cost. These skills are as hard as they get.

Tim: How should businesses be thinking about talent differently?

Terry: Businesses need to put themselves in the world of talent. We’re not the prize anymore. We need talent,, and in order to have a good partnership we need to be putting what they need on at least the same level as what the business needs. Because without talent there is no product or service to give to clients. We’ve gotten very comfortable with saying, “What are you bringing to the table?” We need to be saying, “We’re in this together. Let’s figure out how we both can win.” There is so much area for both parties to get exactly what is wanted.

Tim: In order for this shift in work to be positive, what systemic changes do we need?

Terry: Compliance is huge. With the way that we’re going, we need to reconsider how to categorize employees so that they can move seamlessly between outside the employer world and inside the employer world. Right now employers are afraid to use independent contractors because of the way the regulations are set-up. The IRS is adding agents for this purpose and they’re making it more difficult to categorize someone as an independent contractor. In the event that they are misclassified, there are tax implications, there are fee and penalty consequences, and there are benefit consequences. It’s just easier to stay in the traditional employee-employer relationship. If the compliance piece isn’t dealt with, we’re going to have an uphill battle. But I think that there’s this force around the discussion today that is not going away. It’s going to eventually be resolved, but there needs to be more focus on how to resolve the compliance issue sooner. Because as an industry, let alone as a country, we’ve got to have things in place that allow us to be quicker, faster, better, and worrying about all these regulations that result in whether or not a person is an independent contractor or employee is not helping anybody.

Tim: I just have two more questions. What are your top two or three big challenges that you are trying to figure out from the business side as it concerns this shift in work?

Terry: Talent, talent, talent. It is our top three problems. That’s something that I think all industries are dealing with. HR people are not sleeping at night because of concerns around bringing talent in, keeping talent, developing talent. That’s huge. And then the next level becomes the cost of the talent; health insurance cost is astronomical. Those would be the two main ones, but the three at the top are all talent.

Tim: What do you think is the big opportunity right now for companies and workers?

Terry: I think this is a really exciting time. There are so many opportunities to rethink all the things that have bugged us in the past. We’ve all wanted flexibility in the past. We’ve all wanted to spend more time with our children. We’ve all wanted to feel like I’m 100% when I am at home and I’m 100% when I’m at work. And yet we haven’t had the tools or the mindset to allow us to have it all. I think that we’re in a position to allow both our own and the generations coming to have that. And this is what we want for our friends, family, and the world really.

Tim: More productive, healthy, happy lives?

Terry: Right.

Tim: Thank you very much for your time.