Due to the nature of the construction industry, the idea of compensation is often measured in terms of an hourly wage. Even fringe benefits are equated to dollars and cents, and Davis-Bacon jobs seem to live and die by that prevailing number. However, the construction industry is changing and companies adapting to the change will lead the way in an ever-increasing labor shortage.
In a recent conversation with a client, I was asked this question: “We pay about as much as everyone else in town…why can’t we get and keep people?” If you have asked this question, you’re not alone. The labor shortage in the construction industry is a tidal wave that most of us see, some have felt, and all of us know is coming. “According to ABC, the construction industry is facing a labor shortage and must hire an additional 545,000 workers this year beyond its typical pace in order to meet expected demand. The trade association reports one in four construction workers is older than 55 and there aren't enough younger workers to replace them.”
The tech industry is often mocked by construction, with their yoga studios and health shake bars, their ping pong tables, and couches instead of offices. And why not? I can’t begin to imagine the looks we may receive if we set up a spin class studio in the jobsite trailer. But as we mock Google for their zen garden conference rooms, we in the construction industry have missed the point.
When I say the word “currency,” what comes to mind? Money. But if I offer to pay you in Ringglets, Meticals, or Colones, you may be a bit confused. It’s money! And in Malaysia, Mozambique, or Costa Rica, it will pay the bills. Currency is something that we understand as valuable. I’m sure if I offered to pay you in gold bars or diamonds, you may not complain too much. Though not the formal currency of a nation, we understand its value and therefore welcome it.
When the forward-thinking tech companies of the world decided to lace their workplace with free candy machines and nap pods, what they were really doing was recognizing the currency of their workers and paying them in something more than dollars. Sure, they still received a paycheck but doesn’t everyone? It was, and remains to be, the non-monetary compensation that attracts and keeps talented workers.
My first job in construction was as a laborer in 2002. On my third month anniversary, my boss gave me a one-dollar raise. On my sixth-month anniversary at this small mechanical company, the boss took me to Home Depot and bought me a DeWalt drill. Two months later, after having put in an exceptionally hard week on a very difficult job, he gave me a paid Friday off to spend with my wife who would be having a baby soon. Of those three things, what meant the most to me? It was the day off. And why did I work for that company far longer than I expected to? Because he knew the difference between currency and money.
Every person in this world has personal currencies. They are the things that have true value. Sometimes it is simply money. But more often than not, the currency that spawns loyalty and creates motivation carries no price tag. And the construction companies that learn to pay employees with this type of currency will beat the labor shortage, guaranteed.
Below are a few suggestions for what I will call “construction crew currency.” However, this list is meant to be a catalyst for creativity. Every company culture is different, and finding the things that work for each company is a personal journey.
Allow me to close with a personal comment about that last one. Earlier in my career, I was given oversight of a division at a new company in a new city. After three months of learning everyone’s name and role, I hand-wrote 46 thank you cards to the 46 construction workers in my division, thanking them and singling out something unique and special they brought to the team. When I moved on from that position over a year later, every single person that received a thank you card still worked there. Want people to stay? Make sure they know you want them to stay by paying them in a currency they understand and value.
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Kevin Juliano entered the construction industry as a laborer. Capitalizing on a degree in Communications, he was asked to move to project management and estimating after eighteen months in the field. Since then, he has served as a senior PM, senior estimator, manager of preconstruction, regional operations manager, and executive, all primarily in heavy civil and electrical construction. Kevin has also worked for Procore Technologies as a Senior Strategic Product Consultant. Kevin has earned a BA from Wheaton College, an MA from Northwest Nazarene University, an MBA from Colorado State University, and is currently working on his Doctorate in Business from St. Leo University.