Trinity Industries HR VP Mike Williams supports—and has worked on—the front lines who deliver the bottom line.
By Marlene Caroselli
“I just followed my feet,” said Mike Williams, Vice President of Human Resources (HR) for Trinity Industries, a firm with more than 16,000 employees. This lawyer turned HR executive has worked on entry-level positions in various lines of work throughout his career, and attributes his work ethic to his father.
“I owe him a great deal,” Williams said. “He made me take on difficult and dirty jobs, and because of those jobs I appreciate people who work with their hands.”
As a result, Williams said, “I’ve gravitated toward the kind of industry that calls for doing difficult work and making an honest living. I cut my teeth at Waste Management, working on the back of a trash truck. There I was, a labor attorney whose company chairman insisted that everyone learn what the trash truck driver did on a daily basis.”
An Alliterative Management Style
Williams’ wife is an educator who taught him to keep his messages simple. For Williams, those messages are three A’s: attitude, accountability and adaptability. Employees can learn skills fairly easily, but a good attitude cannot be taught, he asserts.
Regarding attitude, Williams looks for people with a can-do spirit, who work well with others and without a personal agenda. His second ‘A’ is accountability; he asks people to assume responsibility, if only in a secondary fashion. “Be willing to assist,” Williams said.
Adaptability, the third message component, in the backbone of Williams’ management philosophy. Exemplifying the culture of change he has brought to Trinity. Unfailingly, he encourages a mindset—in his staff and in himself—that gets out in front of the problem.“creative destruction” philosophy, first espoused by Joseph Schumpeter a half-century ago, Williams likes to examine existing practices and then work to continuously improve upon them. He enjoys developing new ideas and applying them to the
Marketing Today’s Rosie the Riveter
Williams acknowledges the difficulty of being in a competitive labor market, as far as welders and pipe fitters are concerned. (These positions constitute about 80 percent of the Trinity workforce.
“It’s hard to find skilled workers in this arena,” Williams said, “because secondary education has morphed to high-tech training. I’m actually competing in the labor market with oil and gas companies that can pay $30 to $40 an hour for entry-level positions. We can only afford to pay about $20 an hour.”
His creative solution to this problem arrived in the form of Emily, an employee he describes as a modern-day Rosie the Riveter. On a tour of a rail-car plant, Williams spotted this small woman welder. He approached Emily, and asked her to tell him about herself. The pride in Williams’ voice is evident as he shares the story.
“This woman is a single mom, who got pregnant in high school. She’s 25 now, has two children, and lives with her parents. She said, ‘You offered me a chance to learn to weld, to be at home at night and weekends with my family. I love this place!’”
Williams is eager to place more homemakers like Emily with Trinity. While being on an oil rig, in the middle of nowhere for weeks at a time, may work for those without parenting responsibilities, the chance to be home for children is important to many parents. (Mike himself is a husband and father of three children.) Even if the job pays less than the oil rig jobs, it presents an attractive, work-life-balanced career opportunity.
In a commercial featuring her, Emily pops up her welder’s hood and declares, “I’m helping to rebuild America at Trinity Industries.” Likewise, Mike Williams is doing his part to promote that rebuilding effort.
Marlene Caroselli is a freelance writer based in Pittsford, New York