Clean Up Construction's Dirty Image

Last month, I spent a couple of days up in Tomahawk, WI, attending the introduction of Case Construction's new N-Series backhoe-loaders. (Visit the Equipment Network for details.) Unfortunately, not even the beauty of the fall colors could distract from the fact that nearly 5 in. of rain fell during our stay, making for very wet, sloppy conditions at the demonstration site.

Now for an office jockey like me, the chance to slog through the mud to operate equipment was quite the adventure. It also proved a chance to gain a deeper appreciation for those individuals who spend most of their working hours in challenging environmental conditions.

Of course, not all construction jobs require being exposed to the elements. But those are the jobs most visible to the public. With few of today's youth inclined to see the appeal in such duty, the pool of current workers is shrinking faster than new ones are coming in to replace them.

Given the state of the construction economy -- double-digit unemployment continues in many areas -- attracting new hires may be the least of your worries. Yet, by putting it off, you may miss out on some significant opportunities.

First, there is still a chance to snatch up skilled workers who are either unemployed or under-employed in their current positions. These individuals may be willing to start at a lower wage with the promise of increases as business picks up.

Next, there is the potential to train unemployed workers for entry into construction careers. Many of these individuals are heading back to school to learn more marketable skills. Attracting them into technical training or apprenticeship programs can enable you to capitalize on the life experiences, added maturity and stronger work ethic they may offer.

Finally, there is an opportunity to attract youths who are emerging from high school to a dismal job market. While most may see their prospects improve substantially in the four or five years it takes to graduate from college, for others, college simply isn't an option. The promise of on-the-job training in a good paying construction position can be highly attractive to these individuals.

The "rub" in all this is perception. In order to attract future employees, the industry as a whole must overcome the image that all construction jobs involve dirty, potentially dangerous work. Changing this viewpoint requires education in both the intricacies of running a construction business and the complex and technical nature of the tools it uses.

A good start is to expose them to technologies such as GPS-based grade control, fleet tracking and monitoring systems (telematics), BIM, etc. As such tools become more commonplace, the ability to use and manipulate web- and software-based systems in the back office will soon be in high demand.

Next, we need to put them in the cab of a new machine. With suspension seats, joysticks, computerized controls and MP3 hookups, machine interiors are ideal for today's workers -- many of whom grew up with a joystick or mouse in their hands and their faces glued to a screen.

They also need to be encouraged to check under the hood. Today's engines and drivetrains are as complex as a Mercedes-Benz and just as easy to diagnose, thanks to electronic diagnostics capabilities. Tier IV engines will add further complexity. "Grease monkeys" will be a thing of the past as highly trained in-house or dealer technicians take over service requirements.

Of course, in order to get the message across, you have to get their attention first. Partner with your local tech school, university or other training resources. Host tours or open houses for elementary and high school students. Find a forum that works, then get the word out: Construction isn't such a dirty job anymore.

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