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Contractor Review

A handful of contractors around the country were asked recently what they’d most like to see changed about working in the construction industry today. A handful of contractors does not a Gallup poll make, but the fact that they almost all wanted to change one of two things, does make one wonder. Top of the list, expressed as a concern by 58 percent of those interviewed, was the quality of personnel and their skill level.

Lacking plasters adequately trained in solid renderings and fibrous moldings, a Georgia contractor tried sponsoring a plasterer from the United Kingdom with 22 years of formal training in plaster. The Georgian ran into trouble because the unions in the United States would not endorse the man’s credentials for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
They were not thrilled at taking jobs away from Americans and supporting an
open-shop contractor. This is not to comment on the rights or wrongs of the above, but only to highlight the lack of trained personnel in the
United States, which sent this contractor looking across the Atlantic
for personnel.

This same contractor
has the right approach,
however, in his work to

provide training for Americans. “I’d like
to see across-the-board training for
young men and women coming (or
dropping) out of high school. Since the
exterior insulation and finish barrier sys-
tem has been outlawed here in Georgia,
everyone has switched over to portland
– cement, which has its own problems.
The problems we are seeing, then, are
general building practice problems, not
ones that are inherent to EIFS or portland
cement. The answer is to get into
training and do the best we can on our
side of the fence, which was the basic
problem, anyway.”

An Arkansas contractor who has enjoyed
his 30 years in the industry and
feels they have been good to him says,
“It’s difficult to provide better training
programs for those who want to work in
the industry. Back when there were
more unions, there were training and
apprenticeship programs, and a person
learned something and arrived on the
job as an asset. Overall today, we are
dealing with a different class of individual,
less professional. With people coming
in off the street, the contractors end
up training them on the jobs, which is
an extra burden for the contractors. I’m
not pumping up the unions, but going
back to when there were more unions, a
company arriving in town could call the
Carpenters local if they needed carpenters,
etc. That is not the way it is today.
You end up working through temporary
services. We do get some real good people
out of some of these companies, but
some are not so good—the ones that
come in off the street.”

Expressing their frustration, several contractors,
such as this one from Illinois,
want to see “robots do the work. It’s difficult
to coordinate everyone and get
them on the same page. If you could
program everyone to work in the same
direction, it would be wonderful.”
Another Georgian hits the nail on the
head when he says, “Our most limited
resource right now is human resources.”

Moral Fiber for Building

Perhaps the reason for this lies deeper
than the declining influence of unions
and their valuable training and apprenticeship
programs. As noted by a Californian,
this lack of training is a symptom
of the lack of morals in society. “I’d
like to see the labor pool be like the old
days. Some of the new kids who are
coming up the line, their values aren’t
like those of the old school. I don’t think
there’s as much pride in their work. I’ve
been in the trade 23 years and it is a
totally different labor pool now. The
attitude has become ‘what can the
employer do for the employee?’ rather
than ‘what can the employee do for the
employer.’ I’m having a tough time with
that. I have my own in-house schooling
and try to bring these kids along, and if
they start out with a good attitude, I can
work with them, but it’s a challenge trying
to come up with a different attitude.”

Maybe it’s off-the-wall enough to talk
about morals on the job site, but to then
start talking about morals in society as a
whole as a concern for contractors and
those working in the construction
industry probably seems like the kind of
stretch everyone makes when they run
out of material and wish there was such
a thing as a mud-stretcher—something
that happens in one’s dreams, not the
real world. But maybe this is the key to
reverting the declining standards and
work ethic in the industry (the construction
and every other industry).

Church used to be the place that taught
people morals, reinforced by family
members and society as a whole. But
with the separation of church and state
in schools and the declining influence of
churches in the country, this influence
has been eroded. Children need to be
taught how to tell right from wrong so
that they make the right decisions.

What we need is a moral code that is
based on common sense, not any particular
religion (to avoid treading on any
toes in our multicultural and multi-ethnic
society) and a way for contractors to
help bring that moral code to kids and
the existing work force. If anyone knows
of such a code, speak up!

Where’s the General Contractor?

The other subject that had the attention
of 42 percent of those interviewed was
the deteriorating state of affairs with
regard to general contractors. In a nutshell,
GCs used to add value to the construction
industry (and many still do, of
course), but there is a growing tendency
by GCs to abandon their coordinating
role on the job site in preference for
paper shuffling . . . and also to withhold
payment from subs, causing them financial

“The problem is basically that most
GCs never leave their trailer,” explains a
Floridian. “It’s usually a construction
management team and a lot of the time,
half of them never go out on site. [They]
don’t understand what is going on and
so they don’t organize well. The subs end
up having to organize the job, and it’s a
problem that has worsened over the last
couple of years. I’m on a job right now
that is running itself. The GC sits in the
trailer all day and the subs on the site
hardly talk to each other, so things go up
in the wrong sequence and everyone is
in each other’s way. There’s no management.

“For instance, I have a draft stop in the
ceiling that needs to be hung. Meanwhile,
the truss guy didn’t supply the
furring for me to hang it. So we try to
get the framer to do it. But the framer
continues framing, and now I can’t even
get board up in the attic. So I have to
hang some 50 boards in the ceiling in 2-
foot sections. Normally there is nothing
on the slab, just trusses. So we can get on
a scaffold and lay down board, and it’s a
process that usually takes us a day and a
half. Because of the lack of coordination
and proper management, this job will
take us almost two weeks. We didn’t estimate
for it, so the GC is being backcharged.”

“When the subs have to tell the GC how
to run a job, things get pretty strange,”
adds a contractor from Georgia. “We
have done several jobs where the GC has
come in and fumbled everything up,
and the subs have had to get together
and try and coordinate projects so we
can get back on track. One time, the
GC tried to put the painter before some
of the other subs. He tried to have the
concrete poured before some of the stuff
was roughed in—a number of things.

“What’s happening is that a lot of construction
companies are changing to
construction management and are subbing
out everything, and they don’t have
any employees of their own. The subs
they put out are inexperienced and just
don’t know the sequences. Of course, it
is costing the subs money because jobs
are taking longer to do and so they have
to eat the extra overhead. The construction
managers are the only ones making
money, because they are doing it on a
cost-plus basis. They just buy more time
from the owner when things take longer,
and they’re just raking in their negotiated
profit and overhead.”

How come GCs are moving off their
position of responsibility? As anyone
familiar with the industry knows, GCs of-
old are being replaced increasingly by
construction managers who are not like the old school.
As a Californian points out, “It’s more of a paper-pushing deal
now. There’s so much liability now compared to the old days, that GCs are try ing to shunt responsibility”

With regard to the late payments, an Illinois
contractor notes, “We have to go to the bank more often to borrow, and we
end up paying interest on money that is owed to us because GCs take up to three months to pay us, rather than the 30 days
that used to be or should be the norm.”

For this contractor, the problem is the
GCs sitting on the funds. For one from
Colorado, the problem is “the owners sit
on the draw request, and we all wait for
it downstream. But the GC doesn’t care
and he doesn’t push for it, because he
doesn’t have the labor expenditures the
sub has.”

One basic principle for this kind of GC
to consider is that team members who
don’t pull their weight are usually the
first to go. That’s a long-term idea to
consider, and this kind of GC is not in
it for the long haul. So subs working
with this kind of GC are best off banding
together and demanding the GC
shape up or ship out. It can be done, and
it’s a lot more interesting and pleasant
for subs than continuing to take it on
the chin just because “that’s the way it is
done around here now.”

Which brings up the next point: In
coming up with these two main areas of
concern, the contractors were actually
asked, “If you had one wish granted,
what would you most like to change
about working in the construction
industry?” That elicited responses that
the contractors wanted to change the
most, but about which they felt there
was little they could do.

If there is one little message this article
can get across, it is that something can
be done about it. If man can fly, if the
Berlin Wall can come down, if man can
bounce around on the moon, then we
can teach a bunch of kids some sensible
ideas about how to live their lives, and
we can persuade erring GCs to grab
back their hard hats and start looking
after the subs they rely on to complete
their projects. It all starts with an idea
and a determination. As the saying goes,
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Will you?

About the Author

Steven Ferry is a free-lance writer based
in Dunedin, Fla.

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