The young adults trickling into today’s workforce have grown up differently. When I was a kid, we played in the dirt with rusty Tonka toys and dug holes in the ground just for fun. We pilfered lumber and double-headed nails off of my dad’s worktruck and we built treehouses that would have given the most lenient bulding inspector fits. Young adults today have grown up playing Halo and finding all of their answers on Google.
The most prevalent complaint I hear from contractors surrounds the lack of qualified tradesmen. It’s like there was an alien invasion and all the hard working people have been abducted. The big question for contractors will soon become, “Do I want people who have to work construction, or do I want people who want to work construction?”
Face it, we’ve always had guys show up who couldn’t find work anywhere else. Did they have passion? Did they pay attention to the finer details, the ones that make the difference? Were they willing to pay their dues and were they teachable? Did they even have decent tools? No, no, no, and no.
I’d rather have a crew of five guys who love concrete than a crew of 15 slackers who showed up because they “had to.” I want to work with men who dream about concrete at night. Have you ever been on such a large pour, and as you laid your head on your pillow and you closed your eyes, all you could see was one ready-mix truck after another? If so, then you know what I’m talking about.
White collar versus blue collar
I bet that when you post an opening for white collar positions, you are overwhelmed with responses. But when you post an opening for tradesmen, you can’t find enough quality workers. The supply of workers out in the field who actually make it all happen is drying up. Why is this happening?
Compare how we usually take care of our office staff to our men in the trenches. Our office support staff usually gets paid vacations, a 401K retirement plan, insurance, and bonuses. The worker in the field in a union shop is getting some insurance and a pension with a lower return. If he is non-union, the guy pounding nails and shoveling mud is getting even less for his efforts. This doesn’t even approach the touchy subject of salaries.
In 1988, I was making $15 an hour in a laborer’s union. Last year, I was finishing concrete for one contractor in Tennessee for $16 an hour, with no benefits. When I started laboring, concrete was $48 a yard, now it’s well over $100 a yard.
Expecting more for less
This lag in wage increase and lack of other motivators might be why we are seeing a drop in quality tradesmen. We expect more for less at Walmart, but that doesn’t equate on the jobsite when we want to recruit and retain the best workers.
I realize you wouldn’t be able to stay in business too long if you compensated the guy in the field like your estimators, architects, civil engineers, or the worker with the MBA. But how long can you survive without the worker who has a lifetime of hard-earned experience or the skillful person who makes the plans on paper a reality? What will happen when you are forced to replace your older workers?
I don’t suggest placing your business in jeopardy and going into the red. I suggest we reconsider how we reward the guys who build our companies with their sweat equity. Think it over as you contemplate the shaky future of the concrete construction industry’s workforce.
Craig Cottongim is certified in conflict resolution and is a long-time concrete finisher who is also a writer and communicator. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.