Piling Canada

Team Player

As operations manager at Keller Group in Edmonton, Steve Klein applies the lessons he's learned from team sports to the jobsite
Written by Lisa Gordon
October 2022

Photo courtesy of Steve Klein

Since he was old enough to have skates on his feet or a ball glove on his hand, Steve Klein has played team sports. Now, at age 32, he realizes that the lessons he learned at the ice rink or the baseball diamond are just as applicable to the real world.

Back in high school, Klein enjoyed putting different teams together for slow pitch or hockey tournaments. He and some friends planned an annual road hockey tournament, had jerseys made and built a big “Stanley Cup” for the winning team.

Klein is now the Edmonton-based operations manager for Keller Group plc, a leading geotechnical specialty contractor with branches worldwide. He started with the company as a project coordinator 10 years ago and has steadily worked his way up through various positions, including project manager and senior project manager before attaining the operations manager role this past January.

Suffice to say that Klein is no stranger to the value of teamwork. Not only does he emphasize the quality in his own work, but he looks for it in the people he hires.

“Sports has helped accelerate my career and my knowledge,” he said. “My boss and I have talked about this. You can notice it when someone is not a team player and has never played team sports growing up. We ask those questions in interviews because it’s a trend we’ve noticed.

“In hockey, for instance, you may not always have the best chemistry with the best player on the team; but for sure, you need to have trust with your teammates.”

Building high-functioning teams is a big part of Klein’s daily work at Keller.

“For the most part, my operations manager role is managing the day-to-day operations of our business,” he said in an interview with Piling Canada. “I oversee labour distribution of crews and put together a schedule of the different projects on the books. Then, myself and my team sort out which equipment goes to which job and put together a crew list.”

Klein has lots of opportunities to interact with people on the job, something he’s realized he enjoys.

“I love managing people and always enjoy it. I like that my job is never the same two days in a row. It’s very much about problem-solving. Any time there are issues on site with quality or constructability, it’s always a brainstorming session. It’s not often the same solution twice.”

Before joining Keller, Klein earned an engineering degree at the University of Alberta, which included a few different co-op placements. He found that he wanted to do more than just write reports all day. When his employer’s piling division was sold to Keller in 2013, it offered him the chance to learn and grow with an international company offering global resources.

“My career path started out on the project management side,” said Klein. “Many times, I find that other ops managers have significant field experience prior to going into that position. Personally, that’s been a challenge for me, since I don’t have as much field experience – although I do have some. But the strength of Keller is being a solid team and having a large network of experience to draw on and learn from. When we’re put on the spot to solve problems that may arise, there is no shortage of experience to draw upon if needed.”

As with many construction companies, the biggest challenge facing Keller’s Edmonton base right now is staffing.

“We have way more jobs available to us than we have experienced crews for,” said Klein. “We’re finding a balance between hiring new employees and training them quickly, while still recognizing that safety and quality are paramount.”

Aside from the lack of experienced personnel, green recruits are also hard to come by. A traditional source of employees has been the union hall, but there aren’t enough workers there now.

“We’ve had to turn down multiple jobs and sub jobs out.”

Finding solutions isn’t easy. To balance out crews, Klein says he tries to spread out experienced staff members and juggle them from site to site. Keller is looking at implementing an incentive-based referral program for its existing employees and has been advertising on career websites, LinkedIn and with an open call to the union.

“The other thing is that we’ve leaned on the strengths of our company being an international company,” said Klein. “As a group, we’ve determined areas that need a bit more help, and we’ve transferred our equipment and staff to where they are needed most.”

Open to opportunities

As someone who is constantly learning, Klein enjoys the technical aspects of deep foundation work.

“Having an engineering background, I love how technical all the different foundation systems can be. There is no one right answer for one project. It’s imperative to offer engineered solutions.”

For those who are contemplating a career in deep foundations, he recommends they get out into the field to see what is happening first-hand.

“Keep an open mind and be prepared to make sacrifices early in your career,” he said. “I had to travel to different worksites to get field experience, but I think not having that can hinder a career. As you progress, look for new opportunities. Operations was not something I considered, but I was approached and [management] thought it would be a good fit. Also, don’t be shy about letting your employer know about things you want to try.”

People management is an essential quality in the deep foundation industry, Klein says.

“In the construction industry there is no shortage of personality types. It’s important to get people to like you and work as a team. Recognize their strengths and weaknesses, and put them in a position where they can succeed.”

He also says that change is a constant in terms of industry techniques and even within each company. There is a big push now to make operations more environmentally friendly using electric-powered drill rigs and automation.

“When considering which foundation type might be the best [for a project], there is a tool now where we can evaluate the amount of carbon emissions for each [foundation type],” said Klein. “We can offer alternatives that may save money or lessen the environmental impact.”

When asked what’s next for his career, Klein paused to think about it.

“For the next while, I want to stay in this role, since I only started it in January,” he said. “I think I’ll spend some time here and see what opportunities open up. But my passion for managing people isn’t going to change, so I think I will end up in that kind of role.” Piling Canada

Category: Profile

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Piling Canada is the premier national voice for the Canadian deep foundation construction industry. Each issue is dedicated to providing readers with current and informative editorial, including project updates, company profiles, technological advancements, safety news, environmental information, HR advice, pertinent legal issues and more.

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