Two themes play out month after month in the trade press as the biggest challenges facing the industry. One is the shortage of skilled labor. Lousy pay and even lousier prestige conspire with unfavorable demographics to repel talented young people from the trades. This makes it devilishly hard for all of you to hire top-notch journeymen and service technicians.

Second is the proliferation of bottom-feeding competition everywhere you look. Too many contractors are superb with tools and shop drawings in their hands but clueless with a balance sheet. Their lack of business sense makes it impossible for them to prosper, and harder than it ought to be for those of you who do know how to run a business.

You might notice a certain irony in these two scenarios. On the one hand, you suffer a shortage of skilled mechanics, on the other, too many skilled mechanics masquerading as independent businessmen. Wouldn’t it solve a bunch of problems if only you could recruit some of your impoverished competitors to work for you? Wouldn’t most of them be better off working fewer hours with larger and steadier paychecks?

Such an obvious solution. Makes you wonder why it doesn’t happen more than it does. Why don’t more struggling contractors give it up and go to work for owners who would take better care of them than they are able to do themselves?

Words Of Wisdom: Paul Ridilla, the wisest man I’ve ever met in the construction industry, has addressed this issue numerous times in his PM column throughout the years. People management is Paul’s pivotal subject, and he has noted many times that most trade workers set out on their own not because they are bitten by an entrepreneurial bug, but because they are driven away by idiotic bosses and owners. Treat an employee like crap and, presto, he becomes a competitor. Ever wonder why you have so many competitors?

Paul’s recurring theme is that people skills are a critical industry shortcoming. Formal training is needed to deal with complex human machinery. His writings have detailed principles that the Ridilla family businesses have employed successfully over the years. Many other consultants have devised admirable management systems as well. Almost any program would be an improvement over the abject lack of attention given to human resources training in the industry.

Most of you would plead the lack of time and money to do all that. Yet even in the absence of formal training, there is a simple people management program available to everyone that can be easily implemented at a moment’s notice. What’s more, it’s free.

It’s called The Golden Rule (TGR), and we all ought to know it by rote: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In a pinch TGR can substitute for formal management training. In fact, be wary of any management system that doesn’t have it as a core value.

A Moral Imperative: TGR comes from the New Testament, but one doesn’t have to be a Christian to recognize its wisdom. Yet, nor should anyone deny its moral roots.

It’s unfashionable nowadays to speak of morality. It makes many people uncomfortable, especially in the business world, where it is hard enough mustering the cleverness to prosper, much less worry about doing the right thing along the way. My argument is that the beautiful thing about TGR is it serves double-duty as a moral imperative and profit-generating business principle.

TGR says that you have a responsibility to give fair value to customers in return for the goods and services you sell them, and that you must adhere to the payment terms of those who do the same to you. Do that, and people will enjoy buying from and selling to you. TGR also holds you responsible for providing fair pay and benefits to the people who work for you, as well as treating them in a dignified manner. After 20 years of covering this industry, I find an almost perfect correlation between those businesses that prosper over a long period of time, and those that practice TGR as a management principle.

Pretty simple and obvious. Yet, one is left to account for that grand discrepancy between our industry’s trickle of skilled workers and flood of incompetent contractors. The failure to abide by simple and obvious TGR seems to explain this better than anything else.

It’s a good time of year to do some soul searching to figure out whether you’ve been practicing TGR. And if not, to correct this management and moral deficiency without delay.