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Student Spotlight: Vince Hafeli’s journey to curb suicide in the construction industry 'one person at a time'

TAMPA – Ajax Paving President Vince Hafeli’s most rewarding day was talking to a room full of construction industry peers about one of his darkest days.

Hafeli, a student in USF’s Doctor of Business Administration program, shared his personal story of struggle and thoughts on suicide to nearly 1,900 rapt attendees of a construction conference on a Tuesday morning in early February.

As he walked onto the stage, he looked into the audience and said, “This is a big room.” But as he began to tell his story, the room felt small. 

“I was talking to one person at a time,” he said.

Hafeli, a father of two who has spent 38 years in the construction business, was there to talk about mental health awareness and suicide, a taboo topic in the construction industry.

His story preceded an afternoon conference lineup of sessions on e-construction, managing construction claims, and the latest on innovative bridge construction.

On that day, his personal, professional, and academic journeys converged into one 30-minute heartfelt address.

The audience listened in silence as Hafeli detailed his mental health battle that led to him contemplating life’s meaning and seriously considering ending his own life in 2007.

A long and winding career

His long and winding career began in 1985, sampling and testing concrete. In 1992, he worked for the state overseeing consultant design contracts for road projects. In 2002, he joined Ajax Paving Industries of Florida as a quality control manager. He was promoted to lead the company in 2019.

Along the path, there were many successes in his career, with some tragedies and struggles in his personal life.

Hafeli serves on state and national boards representing the asphalt industry and volunteers with the Boys and Girls Club of Sarasota County. He is also an 11-time Ironman finisher and counts raising two excellent kids at the top of his list of personal accomplishments.

“As great as all that sounds, there have been some bumps in the road,” he said.

He talked about a period in 1989 when he learned his brother was terminal, his father died, and he lost twin boys. Shortly after that, his brother and mother died. Those events carried with him for many years into 2007 when he thought about ending his own life, he told the crowd.

Many wiped away tears.

This talk at the Florida Transportation Builders Construction Conference in Orlando is one of the many TEDx-styled talks Hafeli delivers as part of his journey to help end the construction industry’s suicide epidemic.

Sharing his story and research

Hafeli plans to continue to share his story to bring awareness. He has given talks as far away as Aberystwyth, Wales, and will speak at conferences and conventions across the country, from California to Iowa to South Carolina. 

Hafeli’s cross-country talks are also a part of his academic journey. He is pursuing his doctoral degree in business administration at the USF Muma College of Business.

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His personal “bump” ignited a passion for research examining suicide within the construction industry, where more than four times as many workers die by suicide as the national average. His goal is to expand the qualitative research related to suicide within the construction industry.

Hafeli said sharing his struggles has encouraged others to share as well. He keeps a journal filled with his stories of interaction with industry leaders and personal stories of those impacted by suicide.

He said the doctoral journey has helped quell those emotions from 2007 and create a passion he has never felt.  

“I am looking to use what I’ve learned in the program to transform the industry into a more nurturing and caring environment that will be more attractive to the up-and-coming generation,” he said.

He said the professors in the DBA program have challenged and motivated him. In the fall of 2023, he will be defending his doctoral dissertation.

After 38 years in the construction industry, Hafeli describes this chapter of his career as his life-long calling. Now in the golden years of his construction career, he wants to create a national wave addressing suicide within the construction industry.

“We need to promote a culture of caring in allowing employees to share their struggles and help save lives in our industry,” he said.

At each speaking engagement, Hafeli intends to bring a copy of the Suicide in Construction Awareness Proclamation to encourage attendees to sign. The document, which also can be signed online with AsphaltPro Magazine, is a pledge to continue the conversation and work toward having open conversations pertaining to suicide and mental health awareness in the construction industry.

His goal is to get 700,000 signatures before December 2024.

Even if it means speaking to one person at a time.

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