• BW Builder

Skilled Labor or Lack Thereof

I’ve heard numerous different explanations of why there are no skilled labor available in the construction industries - the most common explanation is that the new generations are mostly lazy. According to Entrepreneur.com (the article probably written by a Millennial), Millennials or Gen Y’s are the most productive generation. The Gen Y’s take advantage of technology and have the highest average of side businesses and hustles. The side work is born out of necessity more than anything else, the cost of living keeps rising and pay has been the same for the last 30 years. So if the younger generations are working hard, how come there is no skilled labor to fill the huge gaps in our construction labor force?

I grew up with a contractor in the house, my dad was adamant that I start in a trade as early as possible. I was never one to complain, until I was about twelve years old crawling around underneath houses doing sump pump jobs. Nowadays we lay a moisture barrier down when the house is being built, that was unfortunately not always the case.

Character building… that is what my dad always called sump pump jobs - according to him one could never have too much character... Besides learning how to crawl around underneath a house, he taught me the ins and outs of carpentry at a young age which I am forever grateful for. What if you didn’t grow up with a contractor in your house?

The Financial Crisis

In 2008 the construction industry was turned upside down, new building ground to a halt. The housing market crashed and without mercy people were losing their homes left and right. Unemployment reached record highs in all job sectors especially construction. A generation of trade workers were forced to find work elsewhere. The seasoned contractors that were responsible for training the next wave of builders were forced into an early retirement. Today we are seeing the effects of this 2008 financial crisis, a generation of workers that are unskilled or lacking in skill compared to the previous generation.

The Financial Crisis combined with multiple construction slow downs in the 1980’s and the increasing enrollment in four year universities have decreased the supply of willing to learn trade workers. Universities saw a 25% increase in enrollment between 1980 and 2010, a systematic push for young people to go to college.

Learning How to Learn

If we back up to my schooling days, the scholastic mission set forth by our grade school teachers was to go to college. College, while I won’t demean its importance, is not for everyone. Not all kids need to go to college nor should people have college as their only option. My brother told me and I’ll never forget it, “When you are done with college, you’ll be right back here with bags (carpenter) on.” He did not say it out of malice more just a state of fact and his prediction did prove accurate. Not only did I work in the trades during college to keep my nose above student debt, the first job right after college was right back into construction.

For me college was worth it, I worked hard through college and didn’t come out drowning in debt like most new graduates. Learning and learning how to learn is never a waste of time no matter what type of school. My only objection is the $20 thousand a semester tuition that students subject themselves to. Undergraduate courses are broad and asking a recent graduate to perform any skill based task is like asking an apprentice carpenter to cut a roof. The college graduate with an average of $30 thousand of debt, still has no real skill set.

Currently, I sit on the faculty advisory board at the local community college. Our sole mission is to provide alternative options to four year Universities and promote trade programs in all ages of students. As a society, somehow we forgot that America will always need a skilled labor force. Construction is not the only industry hurting for skilled labor, the shortage is across the board and it will take all of us to prepare the next generation. As contractors, part of our social responsibility is to teach and give opportunity to the next wave of young adults. The other obvious reason is that you need skilled labor to do business.

Skilling It Up

What can you do to help increase our skilled labor force? The most obvious solution is an apprentice program. The trade unions have established programs of their own, but today’s unions are not the forces of nature they used to be. Globalization and the cheap worldwide labor that came with it continues to hurt Unions. I was in the Laborer/Carpenter Union when I was a teenager/early adult and was able to attend some apprenticeship classes, which was a great training program for young trades people. Unfortunately Unions can only train so many people and don’t really help smaller contractors looking for skilled labor. Most of us are smaller contractors, so what can we do?

There is no reason for a small to medium sized construction company to not have some form of an apprentice program. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just taking on an assistant is enough to start. Set aside time into training and showing your employees how to do their job better. Think of your apprentices and assistants as investments, over time they will acquire the skills to run jobs by themselves. If you treat employees right and give them the motivation to grow in their trade, those employees will eventually make you real money.

Most people are unfortunately not natural teachers, it is not an easy job. Communication and patience are virtues required by teachers, which are normally not common traits of contractors (even though they should be). Teaching needs to be part of your business, unless you want to wait on skilled labor appearing out of thin air.

A company culture that promotes learning and employee growth is incredibly important for contractors, this can not be stressed enough. Contractors that write procedures and set expectations for training employees will outlast contractors who do not take care of their workers. Having employees that are engaged and actively learning will keep them around longer, which in return helps the business retain skilled labor that was produced ‘in house.’

Procedure Based Learning

Thinking of company procedures, most people imagine an office with cubicles where employees exist as automatons. If you have ever seen the movie Office Space and their famous “TPS” reports; that is the first thing I used to think of when someone said company procedures and processes. In the movie, a company procedure consists of using a cover page on the “TPS” report and when the main character forgets the cover page he catches hell from his multiple bosses. The mundane task of applying a cover page to a “TPS” report is an example (even if it is a poor example) of a company procedure. Even though this particular movie trashes procedures, I’m sure your company has its own version of a “TPS” report.

The reality is your company has procedures, whether it is written down or not. If you pay your company bills by a certain method at a certain time of month and put the receipts in a certain place then you have a procedure for paying bills. Procedures written down with individual processes explain how to operate your business. Why not write procedures for training employees? I completely understand that writing down how to be a carpenter sounds like a daunting task. There are years of training and experience that go into becoming a journeyman carpenter, especially since the most effective way to learn a trade is to physically do the trade.

Instead of writing procedures that explain how to swing a hammer, think about writing down goals of skill sets you’d like your employees to know. If you primarily frame houses, then a goal could be to successfully frame a window in. There are enough “how to” online framing articles that you could potentially print out some framing procedures for your employees, but your overall goals for an employee skill set is more important.

  1. Communicating Goals: Your employee must know exactly what is expected of them now and going into the future. Setting expectations with your employee early on with achievement milestones is always a good idea. Your goals along with your employees are now aligned, their future brightens and your bottom line will appreciate the skilled labor.

  2. Incentive is the Best Motivation: Those milestones should be matched with an incentive whether it be a pay raise, better benefits, supplying tools, etc. The specific incentive is up to you, but the motivation must be there to help your employee to progress.

  3. Break Down the Goals You Set: The goals you communicate to your employees need to be clear and concise with little room for interpretation. A good goal might be: In six months, the employee is expected to frame a wall with the top plate to tie into the building. Within that six months an employee will learn how to measure accurately with a tape measure along with adding fractions, learn how to cut lumber properly and safely, learn wall layout including marking out and proper handling of a nail gun. Each step of that goal should have a procedure written out with at least safety processes and your exact expectations of a finished product.

  4. Make it Efficient, Make it Fun: People learn the best when morale is good and they are having a good time. Set up competitions for your employees to beat their personal best, just make sure you emphasize quality over quantity. If the employees win a competition, buy them lunch - the incentives really do work. In the Union, if we were caught not walking at a fast enough pace, we were scolded and beaten with a metaphorical stick. That might help you get the job done, but it is hard to take pride in your work when you are constantly berated.

  5. Production: Teach your employees production based building. How can the work be done as efficiently as possible? If you are framing a wall, an employee to layout and measure, another employee to cut the measurements and the last employee to assemble. By adding a sense of production to the jobsite, your building becomes more efficient. Every stage of the project should be set up this way; your employees will learn each job proficiently by repetition and your jobsite will progress quicker due to the added efficiency.

  6. Teach from Your Mistakes: Learning from your mistakes, becoming a better businessperson, becoming a better leader - all stems from making your own mistakes. Give your employee the opportunity to not repeat your mistakes. A good exercise is to write down mistakes in regards to building and business; what lessons did I learn that I can now teach someone else.

With every bullet point above, you should be writing down processes and procedures that reflect how your company communicates, motivates, how goals are set, how to be efficient, work production and identifying mistakes you have made that will help teach the next generation.

Setting your employees up with learning procedures and expectations will help speed up skill development. Skilled labor is hard to find and in some cases skilled labor will be fought over. In California, after the 2017 and 2019 wildfires, finding skilled labor is almost impossible. Every carpenter that can swing a hammer has already been hired and is being paid almost prevailing wage. The demand for labor far exceeds the supply, so we have bidding wars between contractors trying to retain skilled labor.

Eventually all the houses will be rebuilt and the mass of contractors who originated out of the fires will fade away. There will be more contractors than there are jobs, the time is now to establish your company as a true competitor. Remember there are plenty of contractors competing, but very few actual competitors.

Sports and Construction

Athletes hone their skills over a career, pushing their bodies to the limit, always learning their sport. Coaches are there pushing you a little farther everyday. Most of us have been on the yelling end of a coach and even worse the yelling end of a boss. The teaching of individual skills, working hard and teamwork are universal between sports and contracting.

Our young athletes are given all the tools, coaching and athletic procedures to do better. By athletic procedure, I mean the instructional way to complete an athletic motion, such as how to pitch a baseball. I used to research how to pitch a baseball when I was younger, anything to give me an edge on the field. As a contractor, giving your employees what they need to learn and giving them the edge on the jobsite will help set your company apart.

If you need help setting up learning procedures for your new employees, let us know. We can help!

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