Our Team is Our Business

Thomas C Schleifer, Ph.D.

The Greatest Generation

After World War II the construction industry boomed in the U.S. The G.I.s who saved the world from the evils of Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito were proud of what they had accomplished but humbled by the horrors of war. They were eager to return to normal life, find a good job, and raise a family in the suburbs that they themselves would build across America. They jumped at the chance to learn a trade and earn a living wage. They built the houses they would raise their families in and then purchased them with the help of the G.I. Bill. This was the dawn of the modern American construction industry, and the Greatest Generation was both the first customers, the first employees. They also raised the families (the baby boomers) that became the construction industry’s primary work force for the next sixty years.

Trade Unions

This post war construction boom also gave new life to trade unions. The construction trades union movement (as opposed to the more generic “labor union” movement) was a natural outgrowth of the organization skills of the U.S. military that enabled us to defeat Hitler. Having just mustered out of an army that organized tens of thousands of men and women in pursuit of a single goal, the Greatest Generation formed trade unions that resembled the guilds (associations of craftsmen formed to promote the economic interests of their members) of the Middle Ages. The trade unions organized the massive labor force that built modern America. They were able to evaluate, recruit, train, and establish skill standards and pay scales that reflected those standards (apprentice, helper, journeyman, etc.) that ultimately resulted in the most productive labor force the world had ever seen. As the industry grew and prospered, differences set in and controversy between labor and management caused trade unions to lose some of their positive impact. 

A Double-Edged Sword

As the trade unions began to lose their preeminence, the construction labor force was aging. Born between 1946 and 1964, the oldest of the baby boomers were in their fifties and sixties by the turn of the century and began retiring for the next twenty years. Those who were still around by 2021 when the pandemic rolled over the country took the opportunity to retire en masse and accelerated the shortage of skilled tradespeople to the crisis level. For some time, trade unions had been unable to supply enough skilled labor, and the baby boomer labor pool that was the backbone of the industry for sixty years was gone. This double-edged sword left the construction labor pool short tens of thousands of skilled tradesmen and women. Making the shortage even more severe, the generations that followed the baby boomers preferred college to taking up a trade.

Twiddling Our Thumbs

Most of the largest contractors see themselves as builders that sell finished buildings, highways, etc. to end users. Often the trades that build the finished product do not work for these contractors directly but are employed by sub-contractors, so larger contractors don’t take direct responsibility for the care and feeding of the workforce. This has led much of our industry to an air of detachment from labor that leaves the skilled labor shortage crisis “somebody else’s” problem, and hardly anyone is taking responsibility for finding a solution. I believe this is the quandary we find ourselves facing in 2023. 

We Sell a Service

Contractors are in the business of selling construction services, not selling finished products. Our only true product is the expertise of the teams we have assembled that can deliver a building or a highway on time, in accordance with specifications, and on budget. Therefore, our team’s expertise is our product, nothing more and nothing less. Contractors sell a service not a building.

Team Building

The contractor ‘s primary task is to assemble a team of professionals who can provide reliable construction services to the customers. The four essential steps in building successful construction teams are: 1. Recruit 2. Train 3. Motivate 4. Retain.

To successfully execute this step-by-step process takes time and expertise. For the reasons discussed above, it is the rare contractor who employs a human resource manager. Usually, contractors rely on supervisors and project managers to handle the human resource function in the field, but as the industry’s skilled labor shortage persists, I suggest it might be time to take a less ad hoc approach to building the teams that are essentially our business. 

We will cover the execution of each of the above steps over the next four weeks. 

For a deeper look into labor and labor issues, read more here: LABOR

For a broader view into project teams, read more here: TEAMS 

To receive the free, weekly Construction Messages, ask questions, or make comments, contact me at research@simplarfoundation.org

Please circulate this widely.  It will benefit your constituents.  This research is continuous and includes new information weekly as it becomes available. Thank you.