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Hard Hat Geek

By Robert Ikenberry
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About the Blogger

Robert Ikenberry

Hard Hat Geek by Robert Ikenberry

Robert Ikenberry, PCS, has been in industrial painting and construction since 1975. Now semi-retired as the Safety Director and Project Manager for California Engineering Contractors, Robert stays busy rehabbing, retrofitting and painting bridges. His documentary on the 1927 Carquinez Bridge was the pilot for National Geographic’s Break it Down and an episode of MegaStructures.

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Monday, August 13, 2012

Rebuilding a Skilled Workforce

Recently, McGraw-Hill Construction went looking for skilled labor. Turns out, they weren’t the only ones.

The company published a report on a couple of studies it had conducted. It got me thinking.

The report was the first to focus exclusively on design and construction professionals and trade workers. Basically, McGraw-Hill surveyed a bunch of contractors, engineers and students. 

 Half of general contractors think they won’t be able to find enough skilled help by 2014.

 McGraw-Hill Construction

Half of general contractors think they won’t be able to find enough skilled help by 2014.

What did they find? Almost half (49%) of General Contractors were worried that they wouldn’t be able to find enough skilled workers—within two years, or by 2014.

And a third (32%) felt there would be a shortage of specialty trade contractors.

In this market, I thought the big problem was workers worried about getting and keeping their jobs, not employers worried about finding people. So I dug a bit more.

What Do You Know?

While this report focused mainly on commercial construction, with a heavy emphasis on “green building,” I think it’s likely it applies to industrial construction just as much.

Mainly, the industry’s concern is about skills and experience, not bodies.  Surprisingly, one of the fears was that workers would not have enough general knowledge about safety, organization, planning, project management and overall construction—not so much that there would be a lack of a specialized skill.

I think this relates to experience.

On the one hand, you can reasonably teach a skill like pipe welding in a fairly short, intensive, training session.  However, knowing how to look at a jobsite and see the potential safety hazards (knowing, say, that you have to plan for the fact that concrete trucks can’t get through the dirt roads on the site in three months when it rains heavily every afternoon) is much harder to teach.

That kind of knowledge takes years to develop, and it starts with learning how to be observant. It takes exposure to lots of different structures, weather, jobsite locations, equipment, products, tools—and, especially, lots of different people.

Being able to plan ahead effectively is one of the toughest skills to learn.

The Brain Drain

So as skilled (read: older) workers retire, and younger workers are either disinterested in construction (especially high-effort, entry-level jobs) or pre-disposed to think they can get all the facts they need from their smartphone and Wikipedia, there is some reason to be concerned.

Couple this with the fact that the downturn in construction has shrunk the overall workforce and has encouraged some of the most senior employees to retire rather than take a downgraded job and salary, and the problem becomes clear.

We will likely have a tough time finding really qualified personnel when the market expands again.  And it will; in fact, it probably already is.

Yes, it’s a perennial claim that the “sky is falling” and that the younger generation doesn’t know nearly as much important stuff as their elders—but that doesn’t mean it can’t be partly true.

Wising Up

Those firms who are ready for the upswing with skilled craftsmen and qualified managers will be best positioned to take advantage of the inevitable turnaround. 

So how do you do that?

In my view, much of the wisdom that comes from experience is related to pattern recognition. Essentially, it’s about your intuition or hunches.

Scientists are just beginning to understand how much of the human brain operates with intuition and subconscious thoughts, but there’s no dispute that they are critically important. This is one of the reasons “artificial intelligence” has been so hard to create.

Pattern recognition is much harder to teach. You literally “know it when you see it,” but you might find it hard to describe or predict. The best way to teach it is, arguably, a master/apprentice or mentor/protégé relationship. 

Why Mentoring Works

Experts working with novices can point out what to look for—and why—in a particular circumstance. They can observe and give just the guidance necessary, not insulting the student’s intelligence or explaining what he or she already knows.

The skills of pattern recognition can be shared more quickly than gained alone through trial and error, but it still takes time, and effort, and desire.  By both parties: the master and the apprentice.

So take this time to share your expertise, and your firm and your employees will both be better for it.

About the Blogger

Robert Ikenberry, PCS, has been in industrial painting and construction since 1975. Now the Safety Director and Project Manager for California Engineering Contractors, Robert stays busy rehabbing, retrofitting and painting bridges. His documentary on the 1927 Carquinez Bridge was the pilot for National Geographic’s Break it Down and an episode of MegaStructures.

More items for Program/Project Management

Tagged categories: Education; Health and safety; Labor; Worker training

Comment from John Fauth, (8/14/2012, 9:11 AM)

I'm not sure this isn't also representative of a cultural change in America. The growing "entitlement society" is less motivated to contribute as a means of getting ahead, and places a greater emphasis on just showing up. I'd be interested to know if the same observations in the article were evident in white collar employees, and across other other industries.

Comment from john drengacz, (6/12/2013, 11:06 AM)

Use Union labor and you will have the best trained construction workers found anywhere.

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