PEOPLE — the most important, yet least appreciated aspect of building things.
The blue collar world has a big issue at hand. The current generation is retiring at an accelerating rate, and yet there’s no next generation ready to take their place. Everyone knows it, so you’d think large companies and executives would do something about it. Amazingly enough, they’re not. Instead, they blame millennials, colleges, and whomever else they can find. There are a few programs out there dedicated to training the next generation, but they’re insignificant at best. The more I see, the more disheartened I get.
Why do we have this problem in the first place?
First off, people in construction and mining are treated as a commodity, despite what the nonsense core values say on each outdated company website. Respect. Integrity. Teamwork. Safety. It’s all lies ― I want to use stronger language, but I’ll refrain. I’ve personally seen people treated terribly, from small local companies to multibillion-dollar corporations. Too many people? Let’s fire a few! We can always hire more when we need them later!
And yet, now that they can no longer simply hire a few more, they’re scratching their heads.
Egos dominate in our world. “The way we’ve always done it” mentality is strong. The establishment is blinded by their close-mindedness. The world has changed, and yet they continue to resist and think their way is still correct. They think the next generation is just like them. We’re not. Talking about how soft we are won’t solve the problem either.
Contractors look closely at dollars and data. They analyze historical job costs, fuel burn, depreciation, production, etc. Every aspect of every job is thought through except for one ― people. Interestingly enough, there would be no fuel burn, production, or job costs without people in the first place.
Lastly, employees are threatened with termination if they dare share photographs or their experiences from work. Old-school companies are terrified of the internet, which I find comical. They cite safety as a concern. If you’re nervous about a camera being on your job site ― or in other words, some accountability ― you are not 100% safe like you claim to be on every proposal you submit. What about trade secrets? Ah yes, you think your method of scooping up dirt and putting it into a truck is somehow different than everyone else’s. I can assure you it’s not.
How the heck do we do a better job? What do we change?
Well first off, treat people right. Invest in them. Give them recognition. Praise them for being the ones who make the company money in the first place. After all, the corporate office isn’t a billable line item.
This doesn’t mean go easy on everyone. You can still have high expectations while simultaneously giving people credit. This will always be a hard industry that isn’t made for everyone, and that’s why it’s great. The concept of working hard to make an actual difference in the world is the best-selling point we have. But, keep in mind that you’re now competing with companies offering unlimited vacation and free lunch.
What if, instead of chewing under-performers out, contractors looked inward and asked themselves how they can do a better job teaching and appreciating? What if they shared all job data so that everyone in the field ― from laborers up to management ― knew exactly how their job is performing? What if executives visited sites and thanked their workers, even once a year?
This goes into the second point, and that’s honesty. I’ve watched organizations try to sell our industry as something it’s not. Photos of smiling people in brand new hard hats? Wrong! Like I said, the fact that this industry isn’t for everyone is the best selling point. It’s hard work, and that’s why it’s great. There’s a tangible pride in working hard while making an enormous impact in the world. We need to shout that from the mountaintops. Our enemy isn’t colleges ― it’s corporate America, cooping young people up in offices under fluorescent lighting for 40 hours a week. Their spreadsheets bear no purpose. Our highways, hospitals, and materials literally change the world daily.
Lastly, you need to open up your job sites and share. Privacy is no longer existent. Embrace that change, rather than fruitlessly fight against it. Encourage and trust your people to share their work online. Your competition already knows everything about you ― and you them. There’s little to lose and a whole lot to gain. How can you honestly expect a 20-something to enthusiastically knock on your door when they don’t even know you exist?
These aren’t hard concepts to embrace, but they do require a shift in thinking from the top down. The sooner you do it, the better off you’ll be. Companies who appreciate their people and invite people in will win. Companies who don’t, no matter their size or history, will lose. We will always be a people business, and people are more important now than ever before.