5 Intangibles to Look For in Your Next Operator

Technical skills can be taught; the intangibles that make a great employee often cannot

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By Jason Hurdis, Global Market Professional, Construction Materials Industry, Caterpillar Inc.

Good news: A recent survey from the Associated General Contractors of America and Sage Construction and Real Estate finds that 79% of construction firms plan to add employees in 2019. The bad news: 78% of those same firms say filling open positions is difficult.

If you’re in a similar boat when it comes to hiring operators, here’s something to consider: technical skills can be taught. The intangibles that make a great employee often cannot. If skilled operators are hard to come by, look for candidates with these five essential traits and invest in training to get them up to speed behind the controls.

1. Team player

Construction is a team sport, even for those who may spend an entire shift alone in the cab. For projects to get done accurately, on time and on budget, everyone needs to work together, respect each other’s contributions and avoid petty arguments and grudges. During interviews, ask potential operators about their experiences working on team projects, especially in high-pressure or time-constrained situations.

2. Good communicator

You don’t need to hire Pulitzer Prize winners, but operators do need to be able to articulate themselves clearly, whether they’re asking questions, voicing concerns or explaining decisions. Well-crafted emails, reports and other documentation also help keep projects running smoothly. Consider how candidates communicate with you on the phone, via email and in person. Pay attention to how well they listen, too.

3. Technology pro

Technology is everywhere in construction these days, so seek out operators who aren’t afraid of or resistant to it. They don’t have to be app designers or coders in their spare time, but they should understand the value technology brings to the job and be willing to learn how to use it. See what you can learn about a prospective employee’s familiarity with computers, software, apps and other systems. Even video gaming can be great experience for using technology on board a machine!

4. Eager learner

It’s not just technology. Construction’s tools, safety procedures, jobsite rules and regs, and even the machines themselves are constantly changing. You want operators who can adapt, accept change and stay up to date. Consider asking candidates to share something new they’ve learned recently. That should give you a sense of whether they’re curious and teachable.

5. Problem solver

When a machine breaks down, materials run short or weather causes a delay, you need operators who can think on their feet, troubleshoot issues and make smart decisions – without calling a supervisor for approval. Pull a couple sticky scenarios from your own experiences, share them during the interview and ask candidates how they would react in a similar situation. The answers should tell you a lot about their problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.

If a seasoned operator who possesses all of these characteristics knocks on your door looking for a job, congratulations (maybe you should invest in a lottery ticket). If you’re not that lucky, don’t despair. There are plenty of candidates with basic machine skills, a willingness to learn and a great attitude. Find them, invest in training them, and you’ll soon convert them from newbie to effective operator.