Want Better Employees?

Steven Ferry

January 2007

While interviewing contractors on a variety of subjects, one that kept coming up, even though we weren’t asking about it, was the subject of the quality of the work force.

In answer to the complaint that "few prospects are properly trained, apprenticed or experienced” (and that "the industry is scraping the bottom of the workforce barrel, with 50 to 60 percent having criminal backgrounds and unable to pass drug tests”), contractors have found the following to be a useful strategy: Word of mouth and networking to bring in better prospects (works better than ads and agencies), checking references and doing extensive interviews that include asking the candidate to do something, and then trial work periods.

A Californian provides a solution to the workforce issue: "The challenge is finding qualified help when you need it. I go through the union but they don’t have a lot of qualified personnel. They have a segment of help that is good and who stay busy working for companies. Then there is a certain percentage of a lower caliber who end up being on the books. It’s an evolving process to find good help and hang on to them, because the really good, qualified people end up staying where they are. So we hire good men, train them ourselves from scratch, and make sure they are happy by giving them a good purpose and keeping them involved with the company.

"For people to be interested in our company, they need more reasons than just money. They have to be paid well, which they are, but they also have to have a purpose, a feeling that they are doing something important. Most men enjoy working at a place where they feel connected, where there is a real reason for them to be there, other than just a job that they just show up to and leave. Having a sense of ‘I did well today’ or ‘I fell down today.’ A bonus plan for when we do well or the guys have put out extra effort is part of it, too. People who don’t do well, don’t last very long. If they are not interested or they have an attitude that isn’t consistent with my philosophy, then they won’t last.”

However, while these strategies make the most of a bad situation, for the long term contractors need to change the situation if they ever want to beat this dwindling spiral of lack of good resources, work quality and efficiency.

An Alabaman had to following observations to make: "We have a different generation of workers now. There were a lot more old school guys out there before who worked hard and were dedicated. Nowadays it’s hard to find good help, a lot of the old-school guys have gone. The few who are left and some of the young guys that still have that old-school mentality, who are moving up faster, are holding the supervisory positions.

"I would say probably at most 25 percent are old school mentality while the rest are ‘new school’ or ‘rotten attitude.’ They’re not prompt as far as arriving at work on time, they don’t feel they have to work a full workweek. It’s more of ‘What are you going to do for me?’ instead of ‘What do I have to do to earn this money?’ As the schedules push us to do everything faster and the attitude of the workers is the same, quality is absolutely falling. So we are always on the lookout for people with the old school mentality.”

As one contractor pointed out for an earlier article, "American youth is not interested in joining the trades ... . All our kids are going to college and training as computer programmers today and just don’t want to do the hard work that drywall and metal stud framing requires.”

A Kentucky contractor has his own spin and solution: "We have an issue with lazy laborers: Pay them too much by the hour, and they want to slow down. We just fire a few of them and everything goes pretty smoothly after that.”

The Fallout
As a Floridian points out, many companies in the United States are relying on imported Hispanic workers to step in and do the work. "The biggest thing for us is the change in the work force to Hispanic doing pretty much 60 to 75 percent of the work in this area now. When I started in the business 30 years ago, there were definitely more whites doing all the work, as well as some blacks. Now 1 percent of the work force is black. They are just not available to work, they’re doing other things. I have no idea why that is. We work them all, of course, it doesn’t matter what their skin color is.

"The supervision required to keep the same quality of work has had to be increased. The dollar value to run work has increased, because we have to watch what the guys are doing. At the same time, the wages are higher, and if you factor in inflation, the workers are being paid more than they were before, but delivering a lower-quality product. The way we handle this is just adding more supervision dollars to the budget and having people who can take care of it.”

Obviously, language, understanding and training become issues where such a high percentage of the work force does not speak English.

Another Floridian then brings up a workforce issue that relates to having to scrape the bottom of the barrel to meet demand during a construction boom: "The residential boom, at least here in Central Florida, was saturated and over-inflated for a while, and now it is like someone suddenly shut off the water spigot. The bright side, I believe, is that commercial tends to pick up—I don’t know why, but we tend to benefit during such times. When the economy is booming, many people are out there building because there’s lots of work, which unfortunately drives the overall project values up while forcing us to bid lower because we’re competing against everybody else who is doing residential—including contractors who are able to work less expensively because they’re using sub-par quality labor and all they care about is building as quickly as possible. It’s just unfortunate that when times get really busy, everybody is in it for the money and they tend to use whomever they can find to save $1,000.

"We tend to become busier when things get tough in the residential market, because many of the guys who can only really do one residential project at a time can no longer compete. So our competition tends to be eliminated, and [their employees] come to work for companies of our size, and the builders out there no longer have [those smaller companies] to turn to. These folks start trickling into the commercial market from residential because they can make a little money, and the commercial guys start using them—but they’ll use them on one project at a time, because that’s all the guy can handle.

"Then you have a company like us that’s totally legit—with workers’ comp, insurance and bonding, GCs need four or five projects built at a time. The little guy is no longer around so the GCs have to come back to the legit companies. It ends up increasing our market and everything is not as competitive anymore, so our margins improve, too.

"In a sense, we’re separating the boys from the men. It’s not that I don’t believe in the American free-enterprise dream of being able to go out and start your own business, but if you do, then be wise about it and be legit (workers’ comp insured, full liability). Customers tend to take for granted the guys who are actually trying to do a really good job, trying to build businesses, compared to someone who is just trying to make money off a job. But the customers tend to come back to you, realizing you can get things done while a lot of other people can’t.

"So, there are people out there trying to build businesses, and there are people trying to get rich off a project. Those [in the latter group] fall by the wayside while hopefully, we’re still around. The key thing that I think separates us from a lot of the smaller players is that we have the ability to do more than one project at a time.”

A Californian points out how, even though he has built himself a good work force, "The problem is other sub teams don’t always perform. Schedule is everything on jobs, so it’s really important that all the sub teams are strong. Once the GC notices any sign of weakness, he needs to put that sub on notice; if he still doesn’t perform, replace him. A lot of GCs may start strong but then become weak in the middle and then they die.

"When I have a weak start, I make sure the middle is strong and the ending even stronger. I have built myself a reputation for recovering, even if it’s someone else’s fault. If I have said yes to a contract or a job, and someone else fails to perform, then I say, ‘I will make good for what the other guy did.’ Taking responsibility for the whole game is obviously a successful strategy, but it does highlight the lack of responsibility shown by some subs and their workers.”

A Coloradoan reports they do not have the work force to meet demand: "Our economy and market has just been slammed all year long. I think everybody’s just trying to keep up. It’s probably been as busy as we’ve seen it since the early 1990s.

"I think residential construction here is slowing, from what I have heard and seen, but not the commercial side. It is extremely busy now, and from talking to commercial general contractors, they’re seeing a huge amount still coming, they’ve got backlogs into next summer and beyond, and they don’t see any slowdown for a while, which is rare. There’s just a huge amount of work and not a large enough labor force to get it done.”

Where Do We Go From Here?
At a strategic level, it was suggested in an earlier article that the better-work-ethic Hispanic be legitimized and brought into the unions and trained, not just in their trade but also in English as a second language. In an earlier survey, half the contractors cited unions as sources of good employees through their training and apprenticeship programs.

As one contractor observed, "Most of the Hispanics don’t just talk—they work hard! They don’t have the training, but they make up for it in plain old work ethic. We send them to ongoing classes to learn new things and make them more universal in their skills. In a way, they are the replacement for the second and third generations who are opting out of the trade.

"A lot of the old school didn’t want to see these Hispanics up here at first, but they have come to appreciate their presence. We’ve finally got guys who don’t grumble about hanging wallboard. It was at a point before where workers only wanted to frame. But these Hispanics, they’re paid to hang board, so they do it.”

But what do we do to address the larger issue of a work force that has lost its drive to work? Should we take this on? How do we take on such a large project? The answer is by teaming up with and supporting those organizations that are actually doing something about these situations, who have workable programs that actually get results without costing the moon. It can start with programs such as those that teach English as a second language, that teach people to read, and finally, programs to rehabilitate and give job skills to young adults who may have turned criminal or have had problems staying in the public school system.

Such programs and groups already exist. Combining forces with groups of like mind will allow us to turn the ship around. Standing on the sidelines and complaining about how bad it all is, or just focusing on our own work force, won’t.

And then, once we have created a pool of these "good workers,” keeping them on board seems to be a matter, according to contractors with good retention records, of treating employees fairly, providing steady work, and maintaining a friendly working environment, often from the boss on down, with a family atmosphere, group activities and maybe things like Christmas presents exchanged. It obviously includes good wages, benefits and perhaps profit-sharing schemes.

Someone once said that the future is an empty playing field waiting for some players, and that the best way to predict the future is to get busy and create it.

That’s how to connect the dots between wanting and having better employees.

About the Author
Steven Ferry is a Clearwater, Fla.–based writer for the construction industry.