At the time, I didn’t know how good I had it—some of my fondest memories in our industry are from those days. For nearly a decade, I was in the Dupage County, Ill., laborers union.

But, I only saw my time there as a steppingstone—I had no intention of making a career out of being a “lowly laborer.” I was only interested in becoming a finisher and I grew tired of hearing the contractors I worked for telling me, “You can teach a monkey how to finish, but good laborers are hard to find.”

Adobe Stock / bannafarsai

The reality is, regardless of whether your concrete company is union or non-union, commercial or residential, laborers are the backbone of our industry. I remember one time back in the 1980s when I was a laborer for Deetch Concrete in Naperville, Ill., and there was a concern over the flatness tolerances of our slabs on a particular project. The boss, Don Deetjen, hired a consultant to work with our crew to help us improve our slabs. Laser screeds didn’t exist yet, but I think the consultant’s advice applies today: Having well-trained laborers grading the concrete was the first and most important step in achieving a flat slab.

As concrete contractors, we have three reputations that we work hard to build and maintain: with general contractors, with our suppliers, and with our local workforce. If you are having a difficult time recruiting and retaining workers, which of those three reputations do you think you might need to work on?

How can we lead our laborers better? When I was a laborer, there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do for Don when I worked for him, and he was a hard-faced, old-school, tough-as-nails leader. But he treated me with respect, and I’ll never forget the example of his leadership. His approach: Cross-train your laborers among the different parts of your work, show them that they have an opportunity to grow within your company, and, most importantly, express your appreciation for their loyalty.

How you communicate to your laborers truly matters. If you only communicate to command, complain, or criticize, you’ll lose out with your followers. You also have to compliment your workers (especially your laborers) on the progress they are making as tradesmen in their skills, compliment them on any job well done, and compliment them on any professional accomplishments they achieve.

If you want to grow as a leader, or grow your business, ask yourself this: How much effort am I putting into the laborers who I already have on my payroll? If you can’t really think of what you are doing for the overall benefit of them, and if upon reflection you could be more proactive in developing them, maybe the shortage of workers you struggle with does have a solution. You might even be looking at that solution every morning when you shave or brush your teeth.