The Value of Developing Young Talent in Construction

A handful of weeks spent mentoring someone on-the-job can have an amazing impact over the long haul

Developing talent is the best approach for staffing your business regardless of what position you are staffing for.
Developing talent is the best approach for staffing your business regardless of what position you are staffing for.

A question contractors frequently ask is "Where do I find good workers?" Here is a radical thought. Create your own.

Yes it takes time. Yes it feels riskier than hiring a "known commodity." The need to hire field workers springs up without warning. Typically the pressure to staff a project outweighs all other considerations. These are all legitimate reasons to hire experienced workers off the street. What I'd like for you to consider is implementing a mindset and system for bringing in young workers and developing their construction skills.

This is a non-issue for union contractors. They are accustomed to bringing in first year apprentices and having them grow into journeymen. The practice is so well adopted that prevailing wage jobs limit the percentage of field crew that can be apprentices.

Developing young talent is, in my opinion, the greatest contribution unions bring to the table. Unions are systematic in their training of apprentices. Earning journeyman status is not an easy path. It is akin to attending college while working full time.

Non-union contractors should adopt the same strategy. Bring in young workers, teach them how to perform their trade, assign growing levels of responsibility, and raise their pay as their skills and work ethic improve.

Hopefully by now you have figured out that the most effective way to keep your labor costs down is to create a system for developing young talent. It always costs more to steal a worker than it does to hire inexperienced workers and teach them the way work is to be performed.

By training your own journeymen, you ingrain your way of doing things into them before they acquire bad habits from other contractors. Typically, when you bring in an experienced worker you will hear the phrase "That's not how we used to do it." Sometimes you will truly be able to convince him that your way is a better way. More often, he will pay lip service to your way and go back to his way as soon as you leave the jobsite.

A side note: There can be upside to hiring workers from a competitor. Learning how your competition works is beneficial in a handful of ways. You may hear of a better technique that you weren't aware of. You are apt to hear how your competition cuts corners. You are also likely to learn that you have a better, faster way of installing work than your competition. All of this information is good to know.

Whether you are a union or non-union contractor you will benefit from rotating your apprentices through multiple journeymen and multiple assignments. Every one of your journeymen has learned little tricks that help him move quickly and install the work properly. Since there is no one way that is going to work best for every field worker, the greater the number of tricks the apprentice gets exposed to the greater the likelihood that he will find the ones that work best for him.  

Rotating an apprentice through different journeymen will help him learn to adjust his personality for other personalities. This skill becomes crucial when the apprentice becomes a journeymen starts talking to owners, builders and designers directly and when he starts mentoring apprentices.

Soft skills are something contractors tend to overlook but they are important to the ongoing success of your company. Your field workers represent your company. Their communication skills and people skills impact your company's reputation and brand. This is especially true if you perform any kind of service work. You need your field workers to be excellent craftsmen and competent communicators.

If you came up through the field, make sure you take time to pass along your knowledge. The most valuable education I ever received was when the owner of my engineering firm dragged me into the field working side by side with him for several weeks taking measurements, starting up the HVAC systems, and tuning the controls systems. His knowledge of that stuff was off the charts.

He personally developed my skills in those areas. That was 25 years ago, and to this day I am still probably better at it than 95% of the people who do that for a living. That was the impact of one expert taking the time to teach a young pup how things should be done. It is truly amazing the impact a handful of weeks spent mentoring someone can have over the long haul.

This message so far has been focused on your field team, and frankly that is where 90% of the opportunity lays. However, if your company has more than five people in the office then you can begin to use the same approach for office staff.

Once you have a really solid project manager on board you can afford to bring on a less experienced one. The same applies to your estimating staff. Neither is quite as cut and dried as the approach for the field is but it certainly has merit.

Without a doubt, this is a great approach for your sales staff. Bring in young hungry men and women. Have them go out on ride-alongs with your senior sales personnel. Assign grunt work sales tasks to them so that they will learn the importance of follow-up and relationship management. As they master the dirty work and learn the pitches that work best for your business start sending them out on cold calls. You will burn through several young sales people following this path, and you will need to.

So many young people think sales would be "fun". They have no idea how much hard work is involved. Those that succeed put in the effort and love the competition. Most will not. By running them through the obstacle course I just described you will filter out the weak ones before they start costing you real money.

Hopefully your take away from this article is simple: developing talent is the best approach for staffing your business regardless of what position you are staffing for.

One final thought: embrace the fear of failure. Fear failure so strongly that you are driven to do everything in your power to avoid it. The fear of failure is a common trait of highly successful people.