Back To The Future
We may never have one of those imaginary vehicles they used in that 1985 movie to go back in time and visit the childhood years of our parents. Fortunately, many young Americans can still share those early experiences with living grandparents, parents or their friends and acquaintances. Some of today's youth do not have that opportunity. But what is really tragic are the young people who do have access to such memories, yet fail to ask questions, talk or listen.
In November's column we looked at the Engineering News Record article, "No Fix for Craft Labor Shortage." Ask some of your older friends what kind of "fix" they created to survive the Depression, World War II, the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War, along with several recessions. In addition to all these national crises, each individual was challenged with personal setbacks and failures. They did not wait for miracles -- they did what they had to do to survive.
We don't need any miracles to resolve this so-called "no fix" for today's craft labor shortage. When God shuts one door, He always opens another; you may just have to look around to find it.
Some of you are already using my recommendations for building and maintaining a proud, productive, profit-making team. Let's take a detailed look at those brainstorming tips mentioned in the ENR article.
1. Integrating more sensitivity training in university-level construction management coursework. This is extremely critical to eliminate the damaging comparisons and competition between educated project managers and competent, skilled craftsmen.
Who is smarter? Who is better? Who cares?
This is like comparing apples to oranges. What needs to be taught and learned by both parties is respect. These are very proud individuals in a very challenging, proud industry, but they cannot gain or maintain that pride without respect.
Possibly we could integrate into the curriculum that old adage, "You cannot judge a man until you've walked a mile in his moccasins."
2. Raising wages for entry-level craft workers. What a lot of contractors don't realize is that the government-regulated apprentice wage structure is only the minimum that can be legally paid. We have the right and the freedom to pay each apprentice as much as he or she can earn. By far the easiest and most profitable method is piecework. In addition to satisfying the apprentice's financial needs, you should also encourage him to recruit his friends and acquaintances.
3. Creating career paths for craft workers that potentially lead to management positions. All of our foremen and jobsite supervisors came up through the ranks of apprenticeship and craftsmen. Even the college graduates were required to learn a trade and accomplish foreman capacity before they became a part of our management team. In addition to providing the necessary hands-on background to make profit-oriented decisions, this also created that all-important respect I talked about earlier.
Every apprentice and craftsman should have the opportunity to read blueprints, document jobsite paperwork, do quantity take-offs, learn estimating and lead a crew of fellow workers.
Some will be good at it, some won't. Some will like it and some will hate it. However, they will all appreciate the opportunity to try to become much more valuable to your company. They will also be more receptive to, and cooperate with, upper management.
Each employee's progress should be monitored and documented along with your database skill inventory. This ensures a continuing effort for the company as well as the individual.
4. Marketing the industry to high school teachers and students in SKILLS U.S.A. VICA. Yeah, right. When pigs fly!
A small percentage of America's teachers are craftsmen and do their own handiwork at home. We also have schoolteachers who do construction moonlighting after hours and during their three-month summer vacations. They know and understand how intelligent a skilled craftsman must be to build, maintain, repair and replace everything on our planet that God did not create. They also realize that this intelligence and ability is in their genes and was not taught by a teacher with tenure in a lifetime job.
Selling a construction career to the other teachers and guidance counselors who have never "walked a mile in those moccasins" would be parallel to making water run uphill. Naturally, any teacher without the skill or ability to perform their own work must pay one of us to do it for him or her. However, we give it to them too cheap. When they have to pay what it is really worth, we will gain that respect!
In each of my recruiting seminars, I pass around a clipping from the South Florida Sun Sentinel dated Jan. 21, 1999. A plumbing contractor brought it to me to show how prejudiced our school system is toward construction careers.
The headline reads, "Program builds incentive for learning the trades. Troubled kids offered job-oriented studies," by Larry Barzewski, education writer.
The article begins with, "Dropouts, truants and disruptive students will get a chance to learn a trade at the Delray Full Service Center through a new program that gives them an incentive to finish school by making sure they're job-ready when they leave school.
"Students who successfully complete the work can expect to land jobs starting at $8 to $10 an hour.
"The only concern raised on Wednesday was from school board member Paula Burdick, who was worried about the danger posed by putting hammers and nails in the hands of problem students.
"Officials hope the program will also appeal to teenagers who have already left the school system. 'We'll be looking for kids that have dropped out of school, who were bored or uninterested, and see if we can't get them back in school.'
"The Palm Beach County program will help the industry compensate for a shortage of workers."
I selected only a few quotes from that article since I don't want my readers to vomit up lunch! If anyone has the fortitude and wishes to read it all, I will gladly fax you a copy.
It is very sad that our "failing" education system maintains this negative attitude toward skilled craftsmen. It is even worse that our newspapers would print such a damaging story! You tell me what kind of marketing program we would need to overcome these attitudes.
If you read November's article about "a time to anticipate and a time to train," I hope you are looking at a "very bright" light at the end of this tunnel. Go back to the future with some of your older friends and colleagues who enjoyed those high wages we earned as proud craftsmen in this great industry.
You may also want to read ENR's Sept. 29, 1997, editorial titled, "End of Puny Wage Hikes had Better be Here Soon." The first sentence says it all: "The day of reckoning may be coming soon for the construction industry unless it takes action to make sure that craft workers are adequately compensated."
That advice was printed more than four years ago and ENR's predictions are becoming a reality. We will not change those public perceptions about our competitive and challenging industry, but we will definitely create that very precious respect.
The hope is that the public will realize that any individual who is smart enough, willing and able to do this work can earn bragging rights and high wages and be elite. A good craftsman should take home a proud paycheck, drive a proud vehicle, live in a proud home and raise a proud family. That is called envy, not pity!