Surviving the personnel crunch for white-collar help will require a combination of creativity and strategy.

Finding quality talent to build construction projects has become a lamentable chore in recent years. But what about the quality talent to manage those projects? Just as lamentable, according to John Koontz, a professor at Purdue University.

“The problem is everyone’s looking for the same talent, and everyone’s using the same methods to attract that talent,” Koontz said at a seminar titled, “How To Hire A Good Project Manager,” conducted at the 1999 MCAA Conven-tion, Feb. 21-25, in Orlando, Fla.

Given the audience response during much of the two-hour seminar, most in attendance would be happy just to hire a project manager — whether he or she is good is another matter. The answer Koontz provided was to increase the pool of talent you can rely on to fill jobs. To do that will require a combination of creativity and strategy. (For more on strategy, see sidebar.)

“The bottom line is you must be creative about how you find your next project manager,” Koontz said. “Creative recruiting will increase the number of candidates and help avoid ‘competition’ for these candidates.”

Not surprisingly, Koontz talked most about what was near and dear to his heart — recruiting for brand-new talent from the country’s colleges. Koontz knows this market the best: He is associate professor of the Building Construction Management Department at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind., as well as founder and coordinator of the university’s mechanical construction management specialty program.

However, as coordinator of the MCAA’s Project Management Course and a project manager himself with two large mechanical contracting firms, Koontz also discussed ways to improve on attracting experienced talent.

“Successful recruiting usually uses a combination of methods,” Koontz said. “There’s no one solution. If you’re relying solely on classified advertising or just on headhunters, you’re not going to obtain the results you’d get if you mixed it up a bit.”

College Recruiting

Recruiting at colleges has always been the No. 1 way to attract entry-level talent and probably always will be, according to Koontz.

However, even this time-honored form of recruiting is in for big changes. For one, competition for top students is fierce. In Purdue’s Building Construction Management program, for example, many of the top students have committed to permanent employment before the start of their last semester. Signing bonuses, moving expenses, last semester tuition payment and company cars are becoming common practice to lure students.

Most engineering and construction management programs have a 100 percent placement rate. Starting salaries for new college graduates entering the construction industry are between $35,000 and $45,000, and salaries have been rising $800-$1,000 a year due to the low supply and high demand.

“College students have never had more construction career opportunities,” Koontz said. That said, it doesn’t mean top graduates are necessarily entering the mechanical construction industry. Most engineering and construction management programs are geared for construction management or general contracting, with a primary focus on residential.

“They’re not being sold on mechanical contracting,” Koontz said. “Back in my college days, we went into mechanical contracting by accident. We’re trying to get students to enter the industry on purpose.”

At this year’s MCAA Convention, much attention was paid to the trade group’s effort to promote the mechanical construction industry. However, Koontz also offered advice individual firms could undertake to better their chances one-on-one on campus:

  • Develop a strong relationship with local colleges. “Most of the people who want to speak to our classes are in general contracting,” Koontz said. “We’d love to have someone from the mechanical trades.” In addition to speaking engagements, Koontz suggested firms could sponsor field trips, provide small scholarships, support research, attend career days, serve on industry advisory councils and above all, get to know and support the faculty. Obviously, it would be best to “adopt” a college that is preparing students for careers in construction. Koontz handed out a list of schools that are members of the Associated Schools of Construction. (The electronic version of this feature on our Web site,, also includes names, cities, states and Web sites of all ASC members.)
  • Hire summer interns. Give college students a positive experience and you’ll end up turning them into great salespersons for your company.

    “Students always spread the word about a good company,” Koontz said.

    Just be aware that bad news travels just as fast as good. “Pay them well and treat them well,” Koontz said. “Hiring a summer intern just for cheap labor will backfire.”

  • Recruit regularly — and do it early. Don’t think spring, think last fall.
  • Be willing to pay the “going rate.” Koontz said today’s students are much more concerned with stability and recreational time than when the professor himself was a student looking for his first job. “It takes more to woo a student than money,” he said. “However, we still get contractors who want to pay $26,000 — even though the students know they make that as the assistant to the assistant of the assistant manager at McDonald’s.”

Recruiting From Within

Koontz had the most accolades for an approach that requires little more than looking under your own nose. “Successful companies are committed to ‘growing their own,’ ” Koontz said. “Your employees know the company. They know the customers. They also know the other staff. Just try putting a price tag on that kind of loyalty.”

Companies should be prepared, however, to train such talent once found. “You must be willing to take a chance since these candidates may not possess all the hiring criteria for the position,” Koontz explained.

Koontz advised to look at the person first and foremost and not so much on the qualifications of the job. “Too often we look too much at the bullet points on a resumé, and not so much on the desire of people right in front of us.”

Discussion from the audience centered on what’s most important for a project manager to possess: technical skills, business skills or people skills. For Koontz the hands-down winner was people skills.

Technical skills are overrated since that should be a foreman’s primary task. And from a professor’s perspective, people can learn business skills.

“Don’t get me wrong, you have to go in knowing the value of a buck,” Koontz explained. “It’s important, but it’s also easy to teach; people want to learn business skills.” What’s more, people easily catch on and quickly see how business theory applies to the real world.

“But learning people skills is what people reject,” Koontz said. “Ask yourself whether you want to change someone’s personality. I say, good luck trying.”

Keep these points in mind to increase the pool of candidates you can tap into on your own workforce:

  • Identify employees who want “more.” Aptitude and attitude are the keys. “Aptitude means you can learn,” Koontz explained. “Attitude means you want to learn. And people skills just means they’re going to like you. Everything else is secondary.”
  • Train, train, train. Education of lower level employees can produce excellent future project managers.
  • Identify employees who have the traits of a good project manager. Then develop and implement a plan to make them a project manager.

“You have to be patient; this is not a quick fix as it would be if you worked with a head hunter, for example,” Koontz said. “But some of the best project managers I’ve ever worked with were all grown in-house.” Employee Networking And Referral

Not many people in the audience used this method; however, the few who did reported great success with this method. One attendee said two out of every three new hires were coming from referrals from current employees.

In a nutshell, this form of recruiting allows employees to earn extra money for referring a new employee. How much? The audience reported ranges from a $500 gift certificate to $2,500 extra pay. Usually the payments are stretched out over time, say something immediately upfront, more in six months and a final incentive at the end of one year.

“A lot of people are reluctant to do this, but not so reluctant to write a check to a headhunter for $20,000,” Koontz said. Things to consider:

  • How long must the referred employee be employed before the incentive is received?
  • What is the actual referral procedure?
  • What happens when more than one employee refers the same candidate?

Koontz said the said benefit of such a referral service is knowing you’ve done something else right: The only way such a system will succeed is if your current employees were happy enough with their jobs to suggest that others follow suit.

Classified Advertisements

“This may be the most widely used but least effective methods of recruiting,” Koontz said. “It costs a ton of money and few people do it well — especially contractors.”

Koontz admitted he often reads the classifieds just for laughs since they all sound the same and sound so unrealistic. Even one audience member reported placing an ad for a project manager only to receive a phone call from a competitor saying such a person doesn’t exist.

“Even for people who do exist,” Koontz replied, “most classified ads are still unrealistic.”

The main problem is most ads just parrot the same basics regarding qualifications, education and experience requirements. “Most ads don’t say anything about the company itself,” Koontz said. “Tell them how good you are, that you’re growing, that you’ve got good opportunities for the future.”

Be positive and stress what’s good about your company. Do that, and you will attract the right people. While Koontz ridiculed the current state of affairs, he did offer the following suggestions on how to improve the effectiveness of classified ads:

  • Carefully choose the media. Koontz gives a thumbs up to trade journals and a thumbs down to general newspapers. “The charges for a trade magazine will be much higher than a regular newspaper, but your message will reach a much better group of people.”
  • Avoid “blind” ads. Most companies are much better off identifying themselves. “Not many people want to reply to a blind P.O. box since they don’t want to send a resumé to their boss,” Koontz said.

The bottom line for classifieds: “Do it well or not at all because you could spend a lot of money and not have any luck at all,” Koontz said.


Commanding a cut of 25-35 percent of a candidate’s starting salary, search firms, or so-called headhunters, certainly aren’t the least expensive alternative. However, they do offer a quick fix to finding help.

“They can be a great asset,” Koontz said. “Just make sure your using a search firms rather than just a resumé clearing house. A clearing house just dumps resumés on your desk while the best search firms act as matchmakers; they try to get people married not just fixed up.”

To chose a reputable can-do head hunter, obtain a referral from some else who’s already had a satisfactory experience. By all means, steer clear of the following tactics:

  • Charge candidates (i.e., job applicants) for their services.
  • Reluctant to provide client reference information.
  • Difficult to reach and do not respond promptly.
  • Use high-pressure tactics.
  • Fail to keep you informed of candidate status.

“You should have the same relationship with a headhunter as you do with any other professional such as your lawyer or accountant,” Koontz said. That means spending time and sharing information about your company. “The best type of relationship you can hope to have is if they think just like you.”

Recruiting Family

Pleasure for some, pain for others. No one sits on the fence when it comes to hiring family.

“People in favor say good work habits and ethics tend to run in families,” Koontz said. “But if family members don’t work out,how do you get rid of them?” Or as one member of the audience suggested: “We pay them to stay at home.”

Above all, Koontz advised that hirings and promotions of family members must be based totally on performance. “And you have to be even more critical of that performance,” he suggested. “You have to definitely raise the bar when family members are involved.” Incompetent family members end up as double-whammies: poor performance as individuals and roadblocks to non-family members who truly are busting their humps in a futile attempt to get ahead.

“‘Tough love’ and ‘no favoritism’ are the keys to success,” Koontz said Homework From Professor Koontz

  • Develop a hiring strategy that incorporates company needs and goals.
  • Be creative in your recruiting methods.
  • Build strong relationship with a couple of universities with solid construction and/or engineering programs.
  • Make hiring from within a priority. Be willing to train home-grown talent.
  • Think referrals from existing workforce.
  • For classified ads, strongly promote your company’s image.
  • Judiciously choose and use headhunters.
  • Proceed with caution when hiring family.
  • Consider temporary help to fill temporary needs.