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Midsize business

On-the-job training your construction crew needs but isn't getting

According to a recent survey of a panel of more than 2,700 contractors by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 95% of respondents are concerned about whether construction workers have the adequate skills required for their role. This is complicated by the fact that construction firms manage multiple types of employees at once, which requires a different set of training and preparation.

There are the “construction challenged,” employees who are inexperienced, new to the industry or are unable to speak English. Then there are experienced professionals who were trained to do things differently at a previous company.

These workers need training, but that’s challenging for many employers. How do you provide comprehensive training that meets the gaps of all your staff, while at the same time conserving time and resources? It’s difficult to create a training program that simultaneously meets the needs of contractors and their employees.

Why construction firms aren’t training their workers

Well-trained employees are more likely to produce high-quality work. They’re easier to retain as training often provides them with a clear path for advancement. So why aren’t these employees receiving the training they need?

Construction firms don’t want to train their employees.

News outlets like WaPo and Inc have reported that employers are looking for employees they don’t have to train. Many construction firms are searching for day-one-ready hires. This takes a significant amount of time but also comes with unpleasant downsides.

  • Day-one-ready hires often become bored soon after being hired. Compare this to inexperienced employees who received on-the-job training. They’re hungry for the chance to prove their value to the company
  • These day-one-ready hires are consistent job hoppers. These employees jump from one firm to another, searching for the next best gig.
  • Experienced professionals prefer to do things their way. They’re resistant to any undesirable culture, performance or procedural changes new employers impose
  • According to Smart and Associates , the average cost of a mis-hire range from 5 times salary to 27 times salary (depending on an employee’s level in the company). An unwillingness to train employees means these expensive mis-hires are a consistent drain on revenue

Why training is important

On-the-job training gives your firm the opportunity to meet your employee’s professional needs. Research from the Construction Industry Institute discovered that for every 1 percent of the budget that’s invested in training, worker productivity increases by 11 percent.

The better your firm is at meeting employee needs, the easier it is to retain them.

What kind of training do construction workers need?

1. “T-shaped” cross-training and development

Consistent cross-training creates T-shaped employees.

T-shaped employees have two dimensions:

  1. The horizontal bar represents a broad set of skills enabling them to work on a variety of projects that are within their wheelhouse but outside of their core area of expertise.
  2. The vertical bar represents Deep knowledge in a specialized or functional area, discipline or specialty.

If one of your T-shaped employees is a drywall specialist they likely also have a broad set of skills in other areas. These skills mean they’re able to assist their coworkers on a variety of projects (e.g. carpentry, HVAC, painting, pipefitting, etc.).

Why construction crews need it

With a crew of T-shaped employees, any  employee is able to step in for another co-worker whenever they’re needed. A consistent focus on developing T-shaped employees builds firm resilience. Your construction crews are able to handle walk-offs, layoffs, terminations, and resignations with relative ease.

T-shaped employees come with additional benefits.

  • You’re able to manage and complete projects in less time and with less manpower
  • Construction firms produce more revenue and profit
  • More revenue and profit means firms can afford to provide above-market salaries
  • Above-market salaries, employee productivity, performance, and retention

How to offer this training

Match experienced specialists with experienced generalists. Create an informal training program where the employees in your organization are accustomed to shadowing other more experienced specialists in your firm. Have experienced employees teach via company-sponsored one-on-ones, group, and on-the-job training.

Here’s the part that’s difficult for many firms.

You’ll need to incentivize employees to share with each other. Tie performance, training, and financial goals together. For example, you can incentivize a foreman to train employees well by offering financial bonuses. This could come in the form of a predetermined performance bonus if a project is finished under budget with zero rework.

2. Extend continuing education requirements

There’s an oversupply of construction managers in the industry today. This is surprising, given the fact that most construction managers, tradesmen, and laborers training isn’t up to date.

Eric Sanderson, founder of Builders Campus , an online construction training company, said, “There are too many people in construction who say they know what they’re doing, but they don’t pay enough attention to what’s important to their employers.”

The National Skills Coalition also found that jobs in sectors like construction and manufacturing account for 53 percent of the labor market overall, yet only 43 percent of workers are sufficiently trained. This includes both employed and unemployed workers.

Why construction crews need it

Some trades (e.g. plumbers and electricians) have continuing education requirements that are mandated by the state or a governing body. Other trades (i.e. roofing) consistently deal with uncertified, inexperienced, and uninsured workers passing themselves off as highly trained professionals.

Continuing education gives highly educated crews the chance to differentiate. Positioned properly, continuing education can become a competitive advantage for construction firms.

  • Many workers complete the bare minimum, focusing on mandatory requirements
  • Continuing education can be used to train clients, showing them how to vet fly-by-night operators looking for an easy payday
  • Continuing education can be used as a positioning and negotiation tool, giving construction firms the tools they need to bid/command higher fees
  • Extending continuing education requirements creates an environment where your construction crews consistently exceed mandatory minimums for training

How to offer this training

There are several education sources, trade journals and trade libraries that provide construction crews with the training needed to improve employee performance and productivity.

  • provides contractor, electrical, plumbing and HVAC education
  • RedVector offers 600 courses for contractors at a flat annual rate
  • BuildersBook offers books, DVDs, codes, forms, study guides, software and productivity tools for construction professionals
  • Associated General Contractors offers education and training resources for contractors

There are many more resources you can use for your construction firm. Some education providers offer in-house, on-premise, web-based and seminar-based education.

3. Retraining to compensate for unnecessary mistakes

No two construction projects are exactly the same. The details in construction projects are subject to change so it’s important that you verify work is performed to specifications. Construction workers can often make simple and avoidable mistakes. These mistakes, while expensive, are also retraining opportunities.

Here are a few common examples:

  • Ignoring up-to-date blueprints. This often leads to expensive rework, scheduling delays, and complex issues.
  • Contractors sign without reading documents,i.e., accepting and signing for the wrong materials.
  • Completing project tasks out of order, i.e., adding siding on a home before finalizing electrical work.
  • Ignoring directions. Many contractors apply building wrap without reading the directions. Naturally, this leads to a drafty building that’s full of mold and mildew.

These mistakes vary based on specialty but it’s a chance to confirm that each employee is able to perform their work at the expected standard.

Why construction crews need it

Many construction crews believe they already have the expertise they need. They believe they’re right until something goes wrong. Use these inevitable (and hopefully small) mistakes to correct bad habits, major problems, and unexpected mistakes. Use these scenarios as training aids to retrain your construction crews. If it’s a case of gross negligence you may need to take disciplinary action.

How to offer this training

A massive research study by Google demonstrated that high-performance teams all have one thing in common. Psychological safety. This is the belief employees have that they won’t be punished for a minor or honest mistake.

Make no mistake, this is hard.

But it’s also what high performers do on a routine basis. If you’d like your construction crew to learn from their mistakes and improve performance, you’ll need to accomplish two things: create psychological safety, and reward employees who are able to learn from their mistakes and meet performance requirements consistently.

Here are some steps you can use to accomplish that.

  • Replace blame with curiosity. Use the five whys to drill down to the heart of mistakes. Keep asking questions until you identify the specific cause and where things went wrong.
  • Find a trade library or education source that solves the specific set of problems you’ve identified. If you can’t find a specific resource for your problem, work to identify the right people to help you solve your problem.
  • Anticipate reactions, plan counter moves. Think about the way your team will respond to the mistake. Then plan for that response, strategizing in a way that produces the ultimate outcome you want.
  • Measure psychological safety via anonymous surveys that are completed by employees routinely.

Retraining employees means you’re focused on the results and the why behind your team’s mistakes. This doesn’t mean you’re happy about these mistakes. It also doesn’t mean employees get a pass for inappropriate or negligent behavior.

Final Thoughts

Employers are looking for day-one-ready hires, but counterintuitively, day-one-ready hires don’t usually produce the retention rates employers are seeking. Construction workers are willing to commit to their employers but they want their employers to commit to them. Your employees want you to take care of their professional needs.

This means you’ll need to approach their training from three different angles.

  • First, use T-shaped cross-training and development to convert specialists into workers with a broad range of skills.
  • Second, extend education requirements for your team, creating a highly trained workforce that outperforms competitors.
  • Third, retrain employees to compensate for unnecessary mistakes.

It’s important to have a training plan for each of these scenarios. Consistent training leads to significant gains in productivity and performance. Create the right professional environment and your employees will have what they need to commit.

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